When Badly Drawn Boy opens his new album, One Plus One Is One, by warbling, "Back to being who I was before," you want to believe him. But he's not telling the truth.
Sure, the old Boy is still present on the record: Check the charmingly lo-fi tape hiss, the thrift-store string sections and the winsome children's choir. But on One Plus One Is One, it's clear that BDB — real name Damon Gough — has matured both as a songwriter and a musician. The lyrics are more introspective. The string and horn arrangements are more complex. And he's probably grown enough to ditch his old moniker.
"It's funny, because I've been doing this for so long now that I guess I have to change some," Gough said. "But honestly, I haven't tried to. I mean, the first song on One Plus One is about 10 years old."
Ten years ago, Gough was just another singer/songwriter playing pubs in his hometown of Manchester, England. He released a string of EPs before hitting it big in 2000 with The Hour of Bewilderbeast, an album that for much of the British press served as an introduction to Gough's scruffy folk tunes and kitchen-sink production values. When the album snuck off with the Mercury Prize, the U.K.'s top musical honor — beating out albums from Coldplay and former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft — Gough was dubbed the ultimate underdog, a slacker icon for a new millennium.
"In other words, I became Beck. Everything I read was comparing me to him," Gough laughed. "When I played shows in Manchester, all these industry people came out to see the next Beck. A friend of mine joked that if someone were to drop a bomb on the club, the whole of the British music industry would be destroyed."
When journalists saw that they didn't have the next Beck on their hands, they responded with harsh and somewhat bizarre criticisms. They poked fun at Gough's scraggly beard and ubiquitous knit cap and were strangely critical of his shambling, rambling live shows, some of which lasted up to three hours.
"That's one I didn't understand," Gough said. "Why wouldn't you want to see a concert that lasted for a long time? Sure, some of them went on a bit, but I never thought I was drifting off or anything."
And the criticisms only grew harsher when Gough's next two albums, the soundtrack to the film "About a Boy" and his 2002 album, Have You Fed the Fish?, found him experimenting with a bigger, studio-polished sound. Gough seemed perfectly content to suffer his critics' rants, but when neither album managed to sell, he was pitted against his harshest critic: his record label.
"I had finished [One Plus One Is One], and my label, XL Recordings, didn't seem to be very interested in putting it out," Gough said. "So I was put in the position of having to sneak around behind their back and meet up with all these other labels. It was like having an affair or something."
The experience led Gough to write "Year of the Rat," the album's first single ("The whole thing made me feel dirty and sneaky, like a rat," he said). The song's a perfect mix of old and new Badly Drawn Boy, with tinkling piano and crashing timpani buoying the voices of Gough and the Stockport Music Project's children's choir. And the video is a riot, a simple clip featuring an animated Gough and a dog strolling through Manchester, defeating air pollution and human suffering with simple hugs.
"Yeah, I don't want people to get the wrong idea with the video," Gough said. "I certainly don't think I've got super-powers or anything like that. I'm not like Michael Jackson or someone like that. I'm just boring old me."