Today’s male singer songwriters seem more inward looking than ever, as if flinching in the face of extreme rock, and few retreat with the grace of Damon Gough, the Brit loner who records under the name Badly Drawn Boy. The gentle voice and frail strumming that greet us at the start of BDB’s debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, suggest an Elliott Smith tribute act. But ”Bewilderbeast,” which last month trumped Richard Ashcroft’s ”Alone With Everybody” to score the Mercury Music Prize for U.K. album of the year, is a slippery and surprising little record — an oblique song cycle tracing a relationship from balmy beginning to corrosive end.
Gough starts by ”remember[ing] when I saw your face/ shining my way” (”The Shining”), wears down the object of his affection in ”Everybodys Stalking,” clears his head by ”Camping Next to Water,” and, by the penultimate song, ”Say It Again,” is grousing ”You squeeze the life right out of me.” He’s elated, hopeful, snappish, obsessed, overbearing — and yearning for so much rescue and salvation that it’s easy to see why his lover is no longer around.
Gough weds his emotional mood swings to musical ones, leaping from bittersweet orchestration and frazzled power pop to Bacharachian harmonies, weightless folk jazz, and a funereal marching band. Stitched between the songs are brief instrumentals and throwaways, as if he were still forming his thoughts before he articulates himself in the next song. ”The Hour of Bewilderbeast” feels as confidential as a love letter or e-mail yet is still universal — an intimate hour that’s far from bewildering.