Badly Drawn Boy, a.k.a. Damon Gough, is finally justifying his moniker: On this latest album, Gough chooses to forgo his characteristically charming sound, and seems instead like he desperately needs to be redrawn in the image of his former self. An unexpected change from the artist’s stellar “The Hour of Bewilderbeast” and the whimsical soundtrack to 2000’s “About a Boy,” “Born in the U.K.” presents an entirely foreign experience.
Badly Drawn Boy’s earlier albums were all so pretty that they adopted an almost feminine sound. Delicate chimes and woodwinds accompanied tracks like “I Love N.Y.E.” off of “About a Boy.” And he didn’t shy away from minimalism, often merely pairing his soft vocals with an equally meditative violin and guitar line, as on “The Shining” from “Bewilderbeast.” Understated would be the last word to describe his latest effort, however. “Born In The U.K.” opts instead for a larger sound that regrettably falls flat.
The promising melancholy that defined his previous albums has been abandoned, leaving many tracks feeling a bit maudlin. Rife with tortuous strings, “Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind” falls victim to such devils. Also, Gough’s vocals on this number assume such an exalted tone that they sound more cloying than celebratory. Not giving the listener a single chance to catch his breath, Badly Drawn Boy strikes out again on the next mediocre track, “Promises.” Not surprisingly, the schmaltzy name parallels its lyrics; Gough moans, “I promise you will get old / I promised you everything / To protect you wherever you go,” to kick off the song that will soon explore all levels of corny.
At the same time, Gough appears to believe that he can make up for this morose over-sentimentality by saturating other songs with a fatal dose of pep. He tries everything — the unbearable energy takes the form of too-slick guitars, insincere electronica and even booming choral arrangements — but all these additions only sound forced and land Gough in even more unpleasant waters. “Welcome to the Overground” has all the cheese of any song from the “Rent” soundtrack, as Gough’s voice is almost drowned out by a rallying choir. If that isn’t bad enough, the song is only diminished even further by a whiny and tedious electric guitar.
Only on a few tracks does Badly Drawn Boy betray his newfound penchant for heavy arrangements and return to his previous stylistic grace. And he acknowledges this fact on “The Way Things Used To Be,” as he concedes that “The way things used to be / Well, not any more.” Gough is supported by only a floating guitar and soft percussion which, though far from elaborate, save the song from monotony. The country twang that results is simple and satisfying — nothing is forced, nothing dissonant.
Similarly, “Journey from A to B” incorporates enough instrumentals to charge the track without sending it into overwrought oblivion. As the album’s title suggests, the styling of Bruce Springsteen is bound to appear throughout the album, and “Journey” capitalizes on Springsteen’s distinctive freewheeling air with its own rollicking melody.
Badly Drawn Boy’s previous releases were all intensely intimate affairs. Gough’s reliance on only modest instrumentals and his thoughtful tenor created a personal atmosphere that gripped the listener and begged him to sympathize with the singer’s pleas. Regrettably, “Born in the U.K.” shies away from this intimacy, opting instead for grandiose and flawed numbers. The tracks fail to impress and engage, as they all lack staying power and personality. On this homage to his homeland, Gough seems to be aiming for a new audience that just doesn’t exist. Or maybe they’re just across the pond.