There were 96 bridges along the way from my childhood home in Warren County
to Pittsburgh. I counted them once on my family's bi-yearly visit to my
aunt's house. Oblivious to all else going on inside the blue-and-gray Ford
Aerostar, I noted each bridge with a careful tick-mark in my Trapper-Keeper.
The 1987 Aerostar had a unique feature for the passenger in the middle row
behind the driver a headphone jack, volume controls, and a radio tuner. I
often made use of this innovation, gazing out the windows as we wound our
way through Allegheny hardwood country.
Warren County is the land that time forgot. Its selection of
lawn ornaments: garish. Its choice of siding: Tyvek. Navigating the hills
and valleys, radio fades in and out in a gentle crackle. No matter how long
I've been gone, I return knowing the words to every song on the airwaves for
the simple fact that the playlist hasn't much changed since I left in 1992.
(Here, I could've just as easily have said 1982.) There's a special comfort
in that. And so, every time I hear certain songs, I am transported to my
seat in the van. All it takes is Huey Lewis & the News singing
"ooh-wah-ooh" in "Stuck With You” or pretty much any song by Billy Joel.
Every once in a while, modern-music facsimiles come along, exhibiting this
same transporting power. Born in the U.K. is one of these albums.
You know, people are truly unfair to Damon Gough. Criticism of the man
borders on the gratuitous. Wielders of mighty pens lambasted One Plus One Is
One. In fact, they've pretty much derided everything he's done since his
Mercury Prize-winning The Hour of Bewilderbeast. All of these people are
idiots. (Ed: Yet again, another brilliant ad hominem attack that's 5 and
counting.) He never insulted their mothers, so I don't know why they treat
him as such.
Gough, simply put, is one of the most honest, straightforward songwriters
around. Listening to his music is like selecting a mantra; repeating themes
are key, both lyrically and musically. These little snippets not only
connect songs within a single recording, but also span multiple albums. One
of the most prominent is, perhaps, the "Another Pearl” connection between One
Plus One Is One and The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Born in the U.K. is
without similar connectors. The "everything will be OK" sentiment that
crops up in "Without a Kiss" echoes that of "Four Leaf Clover" from One Plus
One Is One. "What are you gonna do when you walk away?/ Walk behind me/ It's
all right, I'm OK" vs. "Go on, get off at the next stop/ Don't worry about a
Also, "Welcome to the Overground" bears a suspiciously self-referencing nod
to his early It Came From the Ground EP. (Ed: That could just be
coincidence.) I, for one, never take any detail of Gough's work as pure
coincidence there are far too many parallels and shared wordings for them
to be accidental.
One might tend to think this interconnectedness would make Badly Drawn
Boy's albums a homogenous wash. This is not the case. Each has a unique
character. Born in the U.K. is no different in this respect. And here's
where I take issue with another popular critical opinion: the ubiquitous
"This sounds mainstream" complaint. If critics would actually take time to
read publicity materials, they might see that "mainstream" was Gough's
intent. Alas, we don't have time to read these days, let alone listen to an
album in sequence past track three.
Where previous albums have made use of diverse instrumentation, strange
sound collages, and instrumental interludes, Born in the U.K. does not. The
only "mini-song" remnants to be found are the "Swimming Pool” snippets. Even
still, these are more restrained than previous segues.
Few artists begin their careers with an experimental album and successively
rein it in as their careers advance. Five albums in, we find a primarily
piano-driven album. Gone are the French horn, cello, and flute. Instead, a
standard rock arsenal of electric guitar, bass, and drums serves as
accompaniment. Yes, the overall sound is more uniform. Uniformity, however,
is not necessarily a bad thing.
Working within these instrumental constraints (and a rock-oriented context),
Gough is able to explore a suite of sonic possibilities. A prime example is
"Nothing's Going to Change Your Mind." It begins as a piano ballad, turns
into power rock, and is interrupted by a meandering falsetto rumination.
This is the most epic, complex track on the disc. As such, it functions well
as the centerpiece, showcasing simple parts built up and functioning
Anchored to (and radiating out from) this central point, we find songs of a
simpler structure. Highlights include "Promises," "Without a Kiss," and
"Time of Times." These bridgeless wonders reveal a joy of being alive; some
would call this naivety, but the joy is delivered in such a steadfast way,
one cannot help but smile.
Several critics have called "Time of Times" a rip-off of Bewilderbeast's
"The Shining." (That's very clever of them, because it says so right in the
press packet.) If Gough himself acknowledges the similarities, why knock it?
It doesn't hurt to borrow a riff from a great song. A song he wrote, no
less. Recycling is not an indication of lack of ideas; instead it goes back
to a point we discussed earlier, album interconnectedness. Each entry in
BDB's catalogue uncovers details in previous works we never knew existed.
Born in the U.K. is an album with the best of intentions. It may not be the
most adventurous BDB record, but that's OK. Even if it's not your
favorite, it certainly doesn't deserve your excessive condemnation. Damon
Gough is a fellow who writes love songs for his wife, records them, puts
them out, and then, to top it off, plays three-hour concerts. If you haven't
seen him live, I'd urge you to. On his last time through Colorado, he played
a marathon set that included an entire performance of One Plus One Is One
from start to finish while puffing away on untold numbers of cigarettes in a
state that's outlawed smoking indoors. He's gruff and scruffy, yet
Just like the people of Carnegie's City. Pittsburgh is a land fraught with
bridges to nowhere, confluences, and the aging carcass of a once-great steel
industry. The blue-collar backbone of the Appalachians. Badly Drawn Boy has
written an album for these people. And here people are trying to tear it
apart. Their vehemence is misplaced.