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ALBUM REVIEW – BADLY DRAWN BOY: BANANA SKIN SHOES (ONE LAST FRUIT RECORDS)

Returning with his first new album in a decade, Mancunian troubadour Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, sounds like a man reborn ****½ Four and a half stars

The British public have always loved to root for the underdog – and, once upon a time, there was no greater underdog than Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy. Raised in Bolton, resident in Chorlton, south Manchester, Gough first emerged in the late 1990s with a distinctive look (that ubiquitous woolly hat), an irreverent sense of humour, and – most importantly – a glorious knack for off-kilter, lo-fi pop songs and romantic idealism.

     Gough didn’t look like your average pop star – and so it was all the more edifying to watch him infiltrate the music industry on his own iconoclastic terms. In 2000, he beat the likes of Coldplay and Richard Ashcroft to claim surprise victory at the Mercury Awards (and delivering the marvellous acceptance speech: “I always assumed I was never going to win because good things don’t happen to good people”).

     Then, two years later, Gough was rubbing shoulders with actor Hugh Grant when he composed the soundtrack to the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy. By the time he had released his third LP, 2002’s Have You Fed The Fish?, Gough was very much a mainstream, chart-bothering fixture.

      All of which begs the question: what happens when a musical underdog starts to lose their underdog sheen?

     After the huge success of his early albums, Damon Gough’s career slowly began to hit the buffers. His late 2000s records – such as Born In The UK and It’s What I’m Thinking – failed to make a commercial impact and, most worryingly, Gough suffered several infamous meltdowns during live shows. The YouTube footage of his 2012 appearance at a Northampton music festival (when he launched into a barrage of profanities aimed at the audience) still makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing.

     Wisely, Gough decided to take a step back from the spotlight. Compounded by various issues in his personal life – he’s battled Crohn’s disease, diabetes and alcoholism, and went through a difficult break-up from his long-term partner – the Mancunian songwriter spent almost a decade in the wilderness.

     Now, at long last, Gough is finally back with a new LP, Banana Skin Shoes – a record which arrives 20 years after he released his Mercury-winning debut LP The Hour of Bewilderbeast. That milestone, as we soon discover, is incredibly apt: for Gough has returned with a record full of those qualities that made us fall in love with him in the first place. 

     Recorded at Eve Studios, Stockport, last year with producer Gethin Pearson (Kele Okereke, JAWS), this 14-track collection combines experimental zeal with his most personal, soul-baring set of lyrics to date. Gough has always been at his very best when his self-awareness is expressed through the lens of tragi-comedy (on his 2002 single ‘You Were Right’, he famously announced he was “turning Madonna down”), and, we’re pleased to report, Banana Skin Shoes is stuffed with such beautifully disarming moments.

      The album’s first single, ‘Is This A Dream?’, is a perfect case in point. An exultant soul-pop belter in the mould of his 2000 single ‘Disillusion’, the song’s lyrics seem to reflect on the fleeting nature of fame and stardom (“Thanks Mr Andrews for giving me the big red book”). Most of all, though, it’s a terrific statement of intent – irrefutable proof that Gough has returned a man revitalised.      

     Indeed, after almost a decade away, what strikes you immediately about this record is the reassuring familiarity of Damon Gough’s musical vernacular. Full of deft melodic flourishes, idiosyncratic production and quirky homespun philosophy – there’s really no-one else on the planet who could have written these songs.

     The superb title track combines Odelay-era Beck playfulness with the Beastie Boys’ hip-hop bounce; ‘Fly On The Wall’ is a shimmering slice of ‘70s soft-rock a la Hall & Oates; there’s an obvious nod to New Order on the pulsing electro groove ‘Colours’; whilst ‘I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness’, a stunningly frank dissection of his relationship break-up, is further evidence of Gough’s talent for tear-stained minor key songcraft.

      Never one to shy from sentimentality, Gough has surely excelled himself on the album’s standout track ‘Tony Wilson Said’. Inspired by the late, great Manchester music mogul Tony Wilson, it’s a Motown-style pop gem propelled by a fantastically funky bassline and a chorus bursting with civic pride (“He crystalized and symbolized freedom, a king with no crown / He left more than a million footprints over this town”). Tony Wilson would surely have approved.     

      Shifting between genres and emotional extremes with ludicrous ease, Banana Skin Shoes openly invites comparisons to his 2000 debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast. If anything, though, these songs surely pack an even bigger emotional wallop, imbued as they are by Gough’s personal tribulations over the past decade. Self-laceration has always been one of his key songwriting attributes, but here, when he’s singing lines like “The true test is how you feel when you’re alone…the best part is that the future’s unknown” (from the jazzy ‘I’m Not Sure What It Is’), he’s never sounded so affecting. 

      After a decade in the wilderness, battling all manner of demons, Badly Drawn Boy has firmly rediscovered his muse – and, as this joyfully eclectic 14-track collection demonstrates, he’s embracing the future with a real spring in his step. Once more, we’re pleased to say, he’s the underdog you’ll want to root for.

Banana Skin Shoes is released via One Last Fruit Records on Friday.

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