Nick Hornby and Badly Drawn Boy -- a match made in Restoration Hardware heaven...
Currently heralded as the equivalent to "The Graduate" soundtrack for "our generation," About A Boy is yet another masterpiece from the tobogganed head of Badly Drawn Boy (a.k.a. Damon Gough). Can you think of anyone better suited to score the film adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel? I think not.
Specially commissioned soundtracks are curious things at the best of times -- if they're done carelessly, the built-in narrative squashes any life out of the music. Let's face it, if this record's primary effect was to conjure up the face of Hugh Grant every time you played it, Badly Drawn Boy’s career would be in grave trouble. (Now if rumors are to be believed that George Clooney originally was to star instead of Grant, you might have had a multi-platinum album right out of the gates.)
The most pleasing revelation about this soundtrack is how well Gough has reacted to discipline. Whereas The Hour of Bewilderbeast tended to ramble and rely more on charm than focus and his live shows are often a self-indulgent endurance test -- he’s been known to start a song, change his mind, eat a banana and then go for wander -- About A Boy feels well crafted and precisely sequenced. A mix of mood setting instrumental snippets (some only 30 or so seconds long) and subtly beautiful musings on adulthood, it's an album that feels like a watershed somehow, a significant step onwards.
Though the music gathered here might not represent an official follow-up to Bewilderbeast -- that's scheduled to hit the shelves in September -- it is not entirely dissimilar to his Mercury Prize-winning debut either. It contains all of those elements that make him not only a wonderful songwriter, but also an excellent composer. The core songs that rise out of the necessary instrumentals, themes and reiterations easily match "Everybody's Stalking," "Pissing in the Wind," and "Disillusion."
Listen to this record and you hear not a background accompaniment to yet more comic romantic fumblings but a talent finally blossoming into something truly special. The quality of songwriting is consistently, impressively high, from the upbeat Beck pop of "The Peak You Reach" to the gorgeous Elliott Smith-esque harmonies and sighs of "Something To Talk About" and "River Sea Ocean." There are no clever tricks or sleights of hand deployed here, nothing more than heartfelt melodies written with love and dedication, but it's still irresistible, magical even.
The same goes for Gough's orchestral scores. The way the music box delicacy of "I Love NYE" slowly unravels itself feels utterly natural and straightforward, but there's a well balanced blend of optimism, sorrow and rising serenity that's breathtaking. "Above You, Below Me" is a charming waltz that runs on the couplet "I will take you as you are/please accept me as I am", but it's the surging, swaying, spiralling, pirouetting strings that capture your heart. This is music written in the clouds, in the light of the stars.