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POP MUSIC

A Contender by Any Name

Damon Gough is also Badly Drawn Boy, but the confusing monikers haven't stopped critics from praising his heartfelt 'Bewilderbeast' CD. Still, he's bracing for a backlash.

November 05, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is the Times' pop music critic

MANCHESTER, England — It's not easy to figure out from the delicate and sometimes mysterious textures of Damon Gough's debut album just where this singer-songwriter fits in the pop world, but lots of people are suddenly taking up the challenge.

Though Gough's album, "The Hour of the Bewilderbeast," has just been released in the U.S., it has been earning raves for months in England, where Gough, who records under the curious name Badly Drawn Boy, has been compared to everyone from pop-rock auteur Beck to melancholy '60s and '70s folk singer Nick Drake to the mystical 18th century English poet William Blake.

The London Times called "Bewilderbeast" the debut of the year in July, and Britain's influential Q magazine described it as the "indie rock 'Pet Sounds.' "

The real bombshell, however, came in September when the album won England's prestigious Mercury Music Prize as album of the year. After three years of near anonymity on the indie circuit in England, Gough, 31, suddenly surfaced on the pop-media radar screen.

Until then, "Bewilderbeast" was simply one of dozens of debut albums sitting on critics' shelves in the U.S. and around the world. But the Mercury honor--over such critically admired finalists as ex-Verve leader Richard Ashcroft and Goth-dance stars Death in Vegas--moved it to the top of the stacks.

And the album proved to be a captivating work--a series of endearing reflections on romance that have only intensified curiosity about Gough himself.

But all this sudden attention has the shy songwriter a bit unsettled on this rainy afternoon in a hotel near his home here. He knows the growing media interest is good for his career, but he worries that it's making him a target.

Wearing one of his ever-present wool caps pulled tightly over his ears, Gough paces his hotel room with a Bloody Mary as he waits for a photographer to set up his equipment, and thinks about what to say to a TV film crew that is on its way.

"My whole idea has been to build up a solid base of support so that there would be a group of people who really knew what my music was all about before the album was ever released," he says, settling into a chair with a cigarette in one hand and the drink in the other.

"That's why I put out seven EPs before I ever released the album. I had a very supportive group of fans. They would even write nice letters to the press. But success breeds cynicism. Now, I'm starting to see letters that go, 'What's all this fuss about Badly Drawn Boy? He's just a pile of [expletive]. Who does he think he is?'

"In a way, I can understand it. No record is meant for everyone, so a lot of people who just check mine out because I've won a prize are going to be disappointed."

If Gough is sounding like another whining musician battling stardom, he is quick to counter that perspective.

"Ultimately, I know that I've got to look at the prize as a positive," he says. "It means someone on the other side of the world is more likely to hear it now, and some of them will probably like it.

"It goes back to the old Bruce Springsteen quote about when he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek and he worried about a backlash. He asked his father what he thought, and his dad said, 'Better you than another picture of the president.' That's the way I've got to look at it too."

*

Gough's reference to Springsteen isn't casual. The Englishman became obsessed with the American rock star in the '80s, collecting bootlegs and reading every Springsteen article he could find. He even tells about the time he met his hero in a Manchester hotel after a Springsteen concert.

"He's been this huge influence on me," he says. "I was living in a place called Belmont Village and there are a couple of references in Springsteen songs to a Belmont, probably a place in New Jersey.

"But I'd hear the name and think, 'Oh, there's a connection there.' It was like a sign from God when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do in my life."

Given this fascination (Gough even claims his jaw is identical to Springsteen's), it's surprising that there is scant trace of Springsteen in Gough's music--perhaps only in the unchecked idealism of "This Song." The only real connection is the two artists' shared sense of passion.

You know Gough is following his own musical path when he opens the album with nearly two minutes of cello and French horn.

When the vocal does kick in, the voice reminds you most of the sensitive, almost wistful observations of U.S. singer Elliott Smith, who became something of a pop-world curiosity himself after the longtime indie artist's "Miss Misery" was nominated for best song in the 1998 Oscar competition.

Like Smith's music, there is a touch of early, folk-period Paul Simon elegance in Gough's music--though he adds a far more aggressive, techno-dance sensibility than either.

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