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Not So Simple Equation

 

Badly Drawn Boy: One Plus One Is One

Twisted Nerve/XL, 2004

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: June 17, 2004

By Laurence Station

One Plus One Is One, the fourth album from Britain's gifted pop experimentalist Badly Drawn Boy (Damon Gough), seeks balance in a world that's anything but stable. Angels and devils, summer and winter, and the intense emotions felt by lovers both united and cracking apart are the lyrical touchstones of its quest to pinpoint an agreeable breathing space between diametrically opposed forces. Produced with Twisted Nerve's co-owner Andy Votel, One Plus One Is One finds the often emotionally conflicted troubadour at peace upon his little patch of ground and turning his gaze to the troubled world at large.

On the title track of his last album (the high gloss, L.A.-produced Have You Fed The Fish?), Gough observed: "Sometimes you've got to rewind to go forward." On One Plus One Is One's title track, he appears to have safely gotten there: "Back to being who I was before." Bolstered by impassioned string arrangements and concentrated brass punctuations, Gough addresses the volatility beyond the sonic harmony of his studio: "As the past meets the future / It gets clearer that it all boils down to love and peace." That homily, while not as enduring as the Beatles' well-worn "All You Need is Love," sets the tone for the entire album. More pointedly, Gough later urges that "It's time to take the gun out of life." Rather than offer a too-easy platitude regarding love and peace and everyone co-existing in some post-millennial Eden, Gough understands that change doesn't come without struggle, and that peace is rarely achieved merely by kind words and a warm handshake: concessions have to be made. That's the dynamic that One Plus One Is One wrestles with, finding common ground between dueling parties as represented by Gough's preferred subject -- a couple trying to make a turbulent relationship work.

On the rumbling, dramatically orchestrated "Summertime In Wintertime" (complete with spirited flute accompaniment by Votel), Gough plunges into a particularly rocky moment for his two lovers ("The feelings ebb and flow like the tide / It's true what I would do if I were you") before waxing conciliatory one song later on "This Is That New Song" ("If I knew where all the tears were flowing to / I'd guide them to a river / Where I'd swim with you downstream"). The bold, piano- and crashing cymbals-epic centerpiece "Year Of The Rat," featuring a children's choir, bursts with unabashed optimism in the face of adversity ("Every day we've got to hold on / 'Cause if we hold on we could find some new energy"). The elegantly stripped-down and brief "Fewer Words" swings to the more depressive side of the emotional chasm ("This is how love dies"). And the brooding "Logic of a Friend" settles for togetherness, no matter the couple's final resting place ("Is it heaven or hell / That I'll be going to? / Just as long as I'm there with you").

Of course, Gough refuses to end things with a clichéd and sappy Hollywood ending. Rather, on "Holy Grail" he concludes matters on a cautiously upbeat but clearly divisive note ("As I wait for you to set sail / Don't you know that I hope you find your Holy Grail"). There is a truce, albeit an uneasy one; a ceasefire for now.

Musically, Gough has reigned in the more indulgent impulses of Have You Fed The Fish?, but hasn't completely retreated to the lo-fi junkbox approach of The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast -- again, finding common ground between contrasting elements. Gough's heavy dependence on strings and prepubescent choral groups, canned audience applause and stormy sound effects suits the material, as opposed to overwhelming it. The only false note comes near the end, with the dull, Lennon-inspired "Life Turned Upside Down," a song that neither advances Gough's thematic conceit nor inspires repeated listens with its placidly strummed guitar and lethargic vocal delivery.

One Plus One Is One may not sparkle with surprising brilliance, as Bewilderbeast did, but it is certainly the most thematically and musically grounded album Gough has yet created. It's also the most hopeful. "To live in the hearts of those that you loved / Is not to die," he confidently claims on "Takes The Glory." Not a bad sentiment, considering these unsettling times.

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