Badly Drawn Boy

Have You Fed the Fish?

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If you count Damon Gough's About a Boy soundtrack as the second Badly Drawn Boy album -- and the caliber of its songs make a strong case for it to be treated as such -- then it seems that the sophomore slump has skipped a generation, ignoring About a Boy and affecting Have You Fed the Fish? instead. Interestingly, the boundaries placed on Gough's style by working on a soundtrack didn't impact his music as much as the limits he sets for himself do here -- on the surface, Have You Fed the Fish? is Badly Drawn Boy's most focused and polished set of songs to date. For most artists, this would be a good development, but on this album at least, it's a poor fit. On his best work, Gough's intricate, lilting melodies, quirky but heartfelt lyrics, and offbeat production touches are woven together as tightly as the knitted caps he wears, but on Have You Fed the Fish? it feels like he forces his sound to straighten out, and the brilliance displayed on The Hour of Bewilderbeast and About a Boy unravels. The album's main problem is its glossy production, which adds an unwelcome, brassy sheen to even the most seemingly heartfelt songs, such as "You Were Right," which features the line "I'm turning Madonna down/And I'm calling it my best move." Actually, this lyric encapsulates many of Have You Fed the Fish?'s drawbacks at once -- it's trying to be quirky and yet mainstream at the same time, it's initially cute and yet a little too clever-clever to really make an impact. Songs like the jangly, off-kilter funk of "Using Our Feet," the title track, and "40 Days, 40 Fights" suffer from these problems, and indeed, most of the album feels strangely overblown. Not coincidentally, the shorter songs and vignettes that dot Have You Fed the Fish? reveal more of Badly Drawn Boy's strengths -- the delicate, acoustic "I Was Wrong," the lush instrumental "Centerpeace," and the sweet, Lennon-y love song "Instrumental Lines" recall the dazzling, kaleidoscopic beauty of The Hour of Bewilderbeast. It's not that Have You Fed the Fish? is vastly inferior to Gough's debut so much as it's an unbalanced and ultimately frustrating album. For every misstep there are successes like the witty funk-pop of "The Further I Slide" and "All Possibilities," which blends disco strings and mariachi horns into a bittersweet yet uplifting gem. "How" is a searching ballad that features the motion, emotion, and surprises that define Gough's best work, and recalls the self-reflexive style of singer/songwriters like Don McLean and Elton John to boot; "What Is It Now?" is a quintessential, if overproduced, Badly Drawn Boy single. Since The Hour of Bewilderbeast both introduced Gough's style and expressed it so perfectly, the stakes are higher for all of his subsequent work. About a Boy proved that he can tailor his approach for more mainstream audiences, but by trying to be both more mainstream and quirkier than Badly Drawn Boy's previous work, Have You Fed the Fish? attempts to fix something that wasn't broken in the first place.

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