The idea of the ‘unlikely’ pop star is one that’s quickly fallen out of fashion thanks to the increasing number of outlets that can let almost anyone reach that goal, but it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that Badly Drawn Boy has the makings of fitting such a description. Damon Gough’s indie-folk-rock endeavour has hit some considerable heights not always conducive with the sort of artist that he is; a Mercury Prize win for his 2000 debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast is a top accolade for an indie artist, but subsequent milestones like recording the soundtrack for 2002 adaptation of About A Boy and even scoring a UK Top 10 single in You Were Right show an artist moving far beyond those predetermined limits. Granted, Gough has occasionally shown a penchant for dipping into poppier waters, like with 2002’s Have You Fed The Fish?, but between a more grassroots approach to making music and a synonymous image that’s a far cry from any sort of glamour, there’s definitely the feeling of Gough being something of an interloper within pop, if that’s where you want to place him at all. It’s fittingly similar to his musical hero Bruce Springsteen in a way, as two artists who are in or on the fringes of the mainstream world maintaining an ethos that’s remained resilient throughout their careers. And given that Gough hasn’t released a proper album in a decade (he recorded the soundtrack for the 2012 film Being Flynn, but that’s it), Banana Skin Shoes stands as an interesting litmus test to see how that ethos has prevailed after so long. Admittedly, Badly Drawn Boy is a name that’s fallen rather far down the musical food chain in that interim, and adapting to that feels like the greatest test for Gough to face with this album.
That translates into Banana Skin Shoes making a slide into pop maturity with a level of grace and poise that really is necessary for this sort of thing to work. Right now, Gough resides in the same space as acts like the Manic Street Preachers, where his most vital years are knowingly behind him and he’s settled into an easier, daytime-friendly mould. The crucial difference, though, is that there’s still colour and creativity that’s more than just an afterthought, and it turns what’s generally a mid-paced and sometimes meandering album into one that at least catches the attention. It’s not going to be jumping-off point into further mainstream plays, simply due to the current climate that’s moved far away from this sort of thing in the last decade, but Banana Skin Shoes is still good overall, an older-sounding indie-pop album that’s undoubtedly comfortable without resting on its laurels or being outwardly yawn-inducing.
That’s primarily going on face value too, as a lot of the writing on Banana Skin Shoes isn’t exactly all the exhilarating, but it does make sense for where Gough is heading as an artist. It’s emblematic of a man who’s settled into a more laidback, content flow within his life, such is the reason why, when politics is touched upon on Is This A Dream?, it’s more from a perspective of confusion that things have gone as wrong as they have, as opposed to any greater rallying cry for change. That can definitely round the edges of an album like this where it’s not aiming too highly, but from Gough’s generally understated delivery, you get the impression that’s kind of the point, and now at 50 years old, he’s just willing to try and enjoy life and appreciate what he has. There’s clear devotion to the relationship he’s in on I’m Not Sure What It Is and You And Me Against The World that culminates in a blunt but sincere message of hope going forward on I’ll Do My Best, as well as the magnanimity towards an ex on I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness and the commitment made to better himself on I Need Someone To Trust. They’re all nice sentiments, but it’s telling that Banana Skin Shoes’ writing shines the most when it’s allowed to play with greater imagery outside of a warm, familial setting, such is the case Is This A Dream? and the tribute to the late key figure in Manchester’s music scene on Tony Wilson Said. It’s all very indicative of an ageing perspective that’s definitely fitting and without any truly bad moments, but it’s also short on some thrills that could’ve made it all stand out a bit more, rather than falling into a good but lightweight flow.
The same could be said for the sound of the album too, except the simplicity of Gough’s work means it’s a lot easier for it to mesh with instrumentation that’s pulling from the elegance and lushness of ‘80s pop and ‘90s indie, while even occasionally finding a handy confluence between the two. You And Me Against The World has an almost Spandau Ballet-sounding tap to anchor itself in, which the watery guitars and flutes flesh out excellently for an almost sensual feel in its flow, while the bubbling bass, low horns and pianos of Colours hit a real peak in pop’s sonic escapism that, at least in terms of instrumentals, is unmatched across the entirety of the album. It calls to note the impressive versatility on this album, and while the standard template of romanticised, orchestral indie-pop establishes itself as something of the main setting, the squonking indie-rap with almost a daisy age shuffle on the title track and the baggy, uptempo indie beats of Tony Wilson Said feel just as well realised overall. On top of that, it’s all immaculately produced, giving the strings a real swell that’s arguably the most crucial for an album that stays in its lower tempos as often as this one does. As far as sound goes, Banana Skin Shoes really is fantastic to listen to, if only for how far the big-budget pop craftsmanship and classicist mindset actually goes, on top of never trailing off because of how deliberately-paced it can be.
It’s just a really solid indie-pop album across the board, not breaking the mould or stepping too far outside of an established comfort zone, but doing everything within that zone with a level of fine-tuning that shines brilliantly throughout. As much as this all feels designed to appeal to an older listener who has a fondness for these sounds due to actually being there, Banana Skin Shoes is immersive and easygoing enough to be enjoyed regardless, especially when the universality of songs like these has been given such attention. All the same, it’s a bit of a departure from Gough’s more ‘expected’ style, but one that does feel natural for him both as an artist and a person, and even if it’s not going to break down the floodgates and get Badly Drawn Boy into the A-list once again, it’s a worthwhile listen all the same, if only for just how comforting it can be.
For fans of: Elbow, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Banana Skin Shoes’ by Badly Drawn Boy is released on 22nd May on AWAL Recordings.