Badly Drawn Boy

Born in the U.K.

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After a bout with writer's block left most of what would have been the fifth Badly Drawn Boy album on the scrap heap, Damon Gough regrouped by writing a set of songs inspired by growing up in the United Kingdom. The results are Born in the U.K., an album that, of course, nods to Bruce Springsteen's rousing-yet-searching Born in the U.S.A. (the Boss is also thanked in the liner notes), but also feels like it's trying to win -- and impress -- as big an audience as possible. At times, Born in the U.K. is impressive, but not necessarily with its most ambitious moments. After the relatively restrained One Plus One Is One, Gough returns to the elaborate, heavily arranged sound of Have You Fed the Fish? for most of the album, and too often, his words and melodies end up drowning in their busy surroundings. "Nothing's Gonna Change Your Mind" is a particularly unfortunate casualty, a song with good bones that's done in by strings that are somehow massive and fussy at the same time. Meanwhile, "Welcome to the Overground," with its huge choir and equally giant guitars and pianos, sounds like it was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber instead of Badly Drawn Boy. To be fair, Gough does harness the album's widescreen sound effectively at times: "Degrees of Separation" is the closest Born in the U.K. comes to clearly elaborating on its concept, setting memories of the Thatcher era to rock that nods to "God Save the Queen," both the national anthem and the punk anthem. "Journey from A to B" is another standout that makes the most of its Springsteen and Phil Spector homages. As the album unfolds, Gough seems to get his footing; it's as though he spends the first half of the album trying to wow his audience but only proves impressive once he gets rid of the pretense. Enough of Born in the U.K.'s second half works well that it makes the album's early missteps even more mystifying: "Walk You Home Tonight"'s hints of blue-eyed soul and Motown nail the sophisticated but accessible sound that Gough strains for in other places, as do "The Way Things Used to Be"'s slight country twang and "Long Way Round (Swimming Pool)"'s Burt Bacharach-style pop. Still, it's more than a little odd that Gough keeps trying this grandiose direction, when the smaller, more idiosyncratic, far more personal sound of The Hour of Bewilderbeast and About a Boy won him fans in the first place. Even though Gough intended Born in the U.K. for a wider audience, it's likely that only the most devoted Badly Drawn Boy fans will enjoy -- or have the patience for -- the attempts at epics here. His voice and songwriting are so engaging that they don't need to be propped up by impressive-seeming arrangements. As with Have You Fed the Fish? and One Plus One Is One, Born in the U.K. is at its best when Gough shares something personal, instead of writing for an audience of "everybody" that doesn't actually exist.

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