Badly Drawn Boy's Have You Fed the Fish? is the CD that might
have been, had Beck's relationship stayed intact. It's a peek at the
chaos surrounding domesticity. One minute it's sweet and optimistic,
the next it's heading for the door and taking a grudge. The back of
the CD booklet has a picture of Damon Gough, the Badly Drawn Boy,
standing in a living room with a black dog looking on and a
children's riding toy in the background. I know the scene well. I've
had to navigate my way past riding toys and naked Barbie dolls while
yelling over my shoulder, "Have you fed the fish today?"
When Gough asks that on the title track, he follows with "Have you
made your wish today?" I almost feel as if he's talking to me. When
my husband set up a 35-gallon fish tank in an upstairs bedroom, I
never fed the fish. I wasn't even sure I wanted those extra mouths to
feed. I was busy trying to keep track of Barbie's shoes and Ken's
head. Then, the shelf the fish tank was on collapsed, and all 35
gallons of water and 12 flopping fish rushed across the floor. Water
went through the ceiling, into the living room below. The light
switch started to sizzle. And I had to wonder if I'd got what I
Getting what you want or what you need is a recurring
theme on Have You Fed the Fish, Badly Drawn Boy's third disc.
The music here combines the scrappy, psychedelic folk of Hour of
Bewilderbeast with the more melodic and sentimental "About a Boy"
soundtrack. Gough's a very agile songwriter, able to move through
several different styles in one track, while weaving with his lyrics
strange, dreamlike scenarios grounded in the details of everyday life.
On "You Were Right," Gough sings to someone he has disappointed,
promising her tickets to what she needs, and saying he can't blame
her for getting on with her life while he searched for answers and
wrote his songs. In the middle of this, he details a dream in which
he was married to the queen and living next door to Madonna. She
"took a shine" to him but he turned her down. He then goes on to pay
tribute to Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain.
And throws in a whistling solo at the end. It sounds like a lot. But
Gough blends it together well, and then brings it all up again in
"Tickets to What You Need," one of the final songs on the disc. In
"Tickets," a piano-driven, Beatles-like romp, Gough also hugs the
eiderdown comforter he says he needed in the title track, giving a
writerly closure to his musings.
In the middle of the CD is an aural equivalent of a magazine
centerfold, a track titled "Centrepeace." It's lush and delicious,
like a centerfold can be, consisting only of an orchestra of stringed
instruments. It's a lightweight pause in the middle of all the angst.
The following track, "How," is one of the best on the disc. It
bounces between remorse, asking for more time on top of a quietly
strumming guitar, and a frustrated rant, backed by heavier horns and
strings. Gough asks his lover to "come back and be all that you need;
another mouth to feed." As the music becomes harder, Gough's voice
becomes louder, asking, "How can I give you the answers you need/
When all I possess is a melody?/ How can I take up the air that you
breathe/ When all I possess is a melody?" This isn't a couple that
had a blissful few months together. These are people who have tried
running a home together, arguing over who will bring home the bacon
and who will make career sacrifices.
Gough has had a lot of critical praise and success since his first
release in 2000. And he's apparently still digesting it all. He sings
about all the possibilities landing at his feet, and in the final
song, a lullaby of sorts, he says not to worry about the money and
the wealth. It's not always easy to listen to such self-reflection.
But his sense of humor keeps the tone playful. Or, when the lyrics
become more serious, he picks up the tempo and offsets the somber
words with a rollicking beat. On "40 Days and 40 Fights," one of the
bounciest songs on the disc, he opens by saying, "You look a lot, lot
better tonight/ You and I should go out for a fight." He sounds
pretty bitter about the 40 days and fights through much of the song,
while the piano and drums prevent any sense of defeat. And in the
end, so does Gough, reassuring us that there was something beautiful
about the experience.
One of the CD's sweetest moments comes at the beginning of "Bedside
Story," the last track. He counts one, a little toddler voice says
"two," then a baby makes an "aaaaaaaa" sound, followed by a woman's
voice saying "four." Gough's like a proud dad, whipping out the
family snapshots in his wallet. It's a moment of fleeting family
glee, soon to be overwhelmed by the toys on the floor, the fish that
need to be fed and the bed in need of a new eiderdown.