Badly Drawn Boy
It's What I'm Thinking (Part One: Photographing Snowflakes)
(The End; 2010)
By Maura McAndrew | 1 December 2010
We’ve all seen it happen: songwriters, in their primes, following up game-changing, influential records with bloated double disc throwaways (see Rose, Axl and Corgan, Billy) or deciding that every demo, castoff, or stoner jam is worthy of major release (also: Adams, Ryan). But equally insufferable are those who tinker and revise endlessly, those who ponder career moves in big, overstuffed, conceptual steps—which sometimes works, but most of the time ends up feeling manipulated and overwrought. (Rock/roll is supposed to be laid back, after all; there is nothing cool about perfectionism.)
The inclination to overthink is particularly characteristic of an artist, a few albums into a career, who hasn’t quite delivered on past promise and hype. Enter Badly Drawn Boy, one Damon Gough, who, after struggling through four years of writer’s block, confronts his return head on with his new three-part series of albums sincerely entitled It’s What I’m Thinking. On the first, Photographing Snowflakes, Gough experiments with a hands-off approach to songwriting, capturing fleeting moments of inspiration and creating a sort of stream-of-consciousness collection of songs—supposedly straight from the heart and without revision. The result is a relaxed, lightweight pop album at its best moments honest and charming, but usually, predictably meandering.
The Thinking project makes perfect sense for Gough at this point in his career. His universally lauded 2000 debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, won Britain’s Mercury prize and stamped him with equally dooming promise. Though he kept his head above water with 2002’s beautifully restrained soundtrack for the film About a Boy, subsequent Badly Drawn Boy albums were met with disappointment. Some of the charm and wit Gough displayed on his debut seemed to seep ever further out of his work, and his last proper album, 2006’s Born in the U.K., was written off as a dull-edged attempt at mainstream success. A decade after his apex, however, Gough seems interested in returning to his roots and loosening his grip on the reins of his career. Years spent trying to please critically and commercially, on Photographing Snowflakes his goal is still to please—but personally.
Thus, themes of success, failure, control, and letting go are all heavily present. Early on, the lovely “What Tomorrow Brings” offers self-counseling against a backdrop of dramatic strings. Gough sings gently, “If this is your reality / Let it be,” referencing not just the obvious, but his newfound restraint too. He wrestles with similar demons on the somber “I Saw You Walk Away”: “If I don’t crucify myself / Somebody will / If I don’t do this thing myself / Nobody will.” Clocking in at over six minutes, album centerpiece “It’s What I’m Thinking” is perhaps the most ponderous of them all, and tedium sets in as Gough’s muddled thoughts go around in circles. A warm and wavering pedal steel works wonders, but one can’t help but think he gets it all wrong in the final lyric: “I know it isn’t much / But it’s what I’m thinking.” Actually, friend, sometimes it’s a little too much.
There are highlights, songs that find Gough operating at the top of his game, such as the Belle and Sebastian-esque “Too Many Miracles” and the crackling “This Electric.” The album sails along pleasantly, but roughly half the songs are easily forgettable. Perhaps this is due to Gough’s strategy of recording and releasing in order: for Photographing Snowflakes, he laid down a mere ten tracks and released them all, a clear detriment to the album’s dynamics. While the lyrics are thematically cohesive, a compelling forty-five minutes is well out of Gough’s reach. It’s like a needle stuck in one groove; too often songs feel repetitious and without momentum.
While this album is far from The Hour of Bewilderbeast part two, it does represent a return to Gough’s more stripped-down formula of simple, ramshackle pop songs built on electronic and symphonic detritus. There’s still not as much quirky energy as found in his early work, but any top forty ambition seems to be temporarily quelled, which should come as a relief to his die-hard fans. “I’m a failure at heart,” he sings in “It’s What I’m Thinking,” and perhaps this series should be taken in that spirit, as a process instead of a final product. Ten years down the line, Gough’s feeling out who he is as an artist, willing to share with us some much-needed reflection. There’s something cool about that.