Scruffy Manchurian Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, is as lovable as he is erratic. His debut, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast
, won him the British Mercury Prize (like a Grammy, but cool) and launched him stateside; its scattered, sometimes-orchestrated disco-funk-folk was like Cat Stevens singing on a Beck record, Gough's boyish tenor and subtle melodies funneled through REO Speedwagon and Prince. That diversity set the precedent for the rest of BDB's career as we came to know it, Gough's songs alternately amplified and diluted by a penchant for funk and radio rock. On the bright side, Gough went on to prove himself unwilling to be trapped by the dour singer-songwriter role (even worse when you're British), but in the process sabotaged some genuine moments of Nick Drake-style tenderness with a self-deprecating lack of discernment. That he is the consummate dilettante, the jack- of-all-trades who won't be pinned to just one, is driven home by his new Have You Fed the Fish
. Produced by Tom Rothrock (probably not coincidentally known for producing Beck), it's a higher-fi exploration of the forking paths BDB has led us down in the past, with dazzling Harry Nilsson moments pitted against tantalizing malformed snippets of piano and orchestration that don't add up.
The only constants in Gough's career, it seems, are his ubiquitous knitted ski cap and his fans' desire to be around for his spontaneous flares of brilliance. Badly Drawn Boy's early live performances were perplexing: His legendary first U.S. show was a two-plus-hour trial where only a song or two were completed, the artist instead nervously compensating, wandering the audience in search of kisses from pretty girls. He was quick to clean up his act, though. After penning the soundtrack to the Hugh Grant heartwarmer About a Boy (which hangs together as an album despite oddly plot-themed subject matter), Gough drilled down--now, at their best, Badly Drawn Boy shows are a better outlet for Gough's endearing randomness than his records.