The Anniversary

The Hour Of Bewilderbeast Turns 20

In 2016, when he was 18 years old, the Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes shared some thoughts about his personal evolution since parlaying viral fame on the video app Vine into a successful mainstream recording career. “From 15 to 18, everybody is a different person,” Mendes told the New York Times. “Every six months, I have a whole new outlook on life.” The quote stuck with me. It rang true. It explains how I discovered Badly Drawn Boy at a P.O.D. concert.

It was a dreary October night in the year 2000. The Christian rap-rockers from San Diego, still nearly a year away from their proper mainstream breakthrough Satellite, were headlining Newport Music Hall on the Ohio State University campus in support of their 1999 release The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown. (It includes such youth group hits as “Southtown” and “Rock The Party (Off The Hook)” plus a cover of U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky.”)

At this point I had declared Radiohead my new favorite band and was on the verge of discovering indie rock, but those personal transformations Shawn Mendes talked about happen gradually. The various phases overlap. Thus, just weeks after forcing my 11th grade classmates to listen to Kid A, I drove down from the suburbs with a friend from church to see P.O.D. With all due respect to the band, I don’t remember anything about the show except that sometime that night I picked up a copy of CMJ New Music Monthly, the now-defunct college radio themed magazine that used to come packaged with a sampler CD of new music each month. I remember this because of one song in particular.

I have no idea how those CMJ samplers were programmed. Maybe staffers meticulously built the tracklists to spotlight their new favorite music; maybe it was all payola. Either way, I remain eternally grateful for Volume 87, which included Outkast’s “B.O.B.,” Johnny Cash’s cover of “I Won’t Back Down,” and Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag.” There were also songs from Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Willie Nelson, Mudvayne, and a bunch of names I didn’t recognize. Much of it did not leave an impression; I’m just now realizing there was a Cursive song on there. Other newfound gems, like “Catch The Sun” from Doves’ debut Lost Souls, became instant favorites. But no discovery from the disc mesmerized me like “Once Around The Block.”

“Once Around The Block” is a perfect song. It begins with a guitar playing squelchy seventh chords, soon joined by a jazzy arrangement including brushed drums, walking bass, and a noodly lead guitar riff that becomes a recurring theme. After half a minute of grooving, a confident if slightly wobbly tenor announces, “You quiver like a candle on fire,” introducing a rom-com storyline that serves up lots of vivid imagery but leaves most of the plot points vague. Eventually the lead singer’s voice is multi-tracked into a small choir, mimicking and accenting the central guitar line as vibraphone melodies and acoustic strums intensify the beauty. Eventually everything but the guitar drops out, and gradually the song builds itself back up, nimbly piling on layers. It is such a brisk, autumnal breath of fresh air that without fail, I happily comply with the singer’s closing instructions to meet back at the beginning and start over.

I quickly became obsessed with this track and soon learned Badly Drawn Boy was not a band but a solo artist from the Manchester area named Damon Gough, rarely seen without his beard and winter cap. He had been kicking around the UK underground for years, building buzz with several EPs and an appearance on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction, the DJ Shadow/James Lavelle prestige project with guest spots from Thom Yorke, Mike D, Richard Ashcroft, and Kool G Rap — impressive company for an unassuming bloke like Gough. He’d initially released “Once Around The Block” as a single in 1999, and upon signing with XL Recordings, the song emerged again on Badly Drawn Boy’s debut album, released 20 years ago today.

The Hour Of Bewilderbeast is an unrepeatable success story. We know this partially because Gough has never come close to repeating it. No subsequent Badly Drawn Boy release has recaptured its oddball mystique and homespun charm. Each one has fallen short of its impact and acclaim, too — though to be fair, he set a pretty high bar for himself by winning the Mercury Music Prize on his first try. That’s another aspect of the album that feels impossible to recreate: Would such an unpolished, willfully discursive collection with such humble stakes even have a shot at being honored as Britain’s album of the year anymore? Compared to its predecessors in Mercury Prize glory — a sleek and zeitgeisty cross-section of ’90s event albums from the likes of Primal Scream, Suede, Portishead, Pulp, and Roni Size — it’s remarkable that Gough even snagged a nomination, let alone took home the trophy.

But Bewilderbeast is a strangely magnetic artifact. Like its cover art, the album is a collage. Gough cobbled together sonic materials of various styles and fidelities, cutting and pasting them into a pocket symphony full of holes and lint. The end result landed somewhere between a junkyard-folk Beck mixtape, an Elliott Smith chamber-pop suite, and a Stephen Malkmus daydream about jamming soft rock in the English countryside. A rustic Nick Drake vibe prevailed, but the tracklist often veered off into sound experiments, whimsical interludes, and amateurish genre exercises that worked more often than they failed.

This was quite a statement, even if lyrically Gough said hardly anything at all. Although Pitchfork’s Brent DiCrescenzo raved that “Badly Drawn Boy proves what shallow saps American liberal arts majors can be behind a guitar,” on Bewilderbeast he was content to vaguely reflect on the beauty of nature and the complications of romance. In theory there was a loose conceptual thread about the Bewilderbeast, a creature that lent its name to a pair of instrumentals, but the album had no narrative thrust to speak of. Gough’s singing was nothing special. Yet thanks to inventive arrangements, some evocative turns of phrase, and the playful mad-scientist vibe that permeates it all, the album was an entrancing experience. One thing DiCrescenzo got right was a comparison to early solo works from George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Opener “The Shining” begins with a stunning cello and French horn sequence before unfolding into an orchestral folk sunrise. “Epitaph” wraps up the album with a children’s choir, frail whistling, and rickety acoustic strums. In between, Gough tries his hand at country (“Pissing In The Wind”), disco (“Disillusion”), piano pop (“Magic In The Air”), and instrumental hip-hop (“Body Rap”). A folksy sequence early on flows from “Fall In A River” (on which the song seems to actually plop into water halfway through) into “Camping Next To Water” and “Stone On The Water.” Every detour becomes a road unto itself.

Often, the effect is disorienting, and not just because of all the toggling between genres. On some of his catchiest tracks Gough leans into the role of the sensitive “nice guy” who might not actually be that nice. He relentlessly pursues a love interest on the skulking “Everybody’s Stalking.” He begins the snappy, grandiose pop-rocker “Another Pearl” by asking, “Why are you trembling so much? I don’t think I’ve ever felt so good.” The immaculate “Once Around The Block” segues directly into the painfully lo-fi Beatles sendup “This Song,” the sonic equivalent of a mothballed sweater. The deconstructed oddity “Cause A Rockslide” bottoms out into who knows where.

I had never heard an album like The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. It actually did bewilder me, mostly in a good way. The scope was so ambitious, the posture so unassuming. Compared to everything else I was listening to at the time, from Deftones to Dr. Dre, it sounded like a faded relic, a curio stowed away in antique furniture. Even the White Album, which I was just beginning to wrap my head around, was not so scattershot and DIY. It changed my understanding of what an album could be — a grownup version of all those teenage identities coexisting at once. It felt like a personal secret to quietly pass among friends.

In reality, Badly Drawn Boy briefly became a low-key sensation. After winning the Mercury Prize, Gough wrote the soundtrack to the 2002 movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About A Boy, ironing out his weird tics and nudging his sound into bright studio clarity. His proper sophomore LP Have You Fed The Fish attempted to bring back the quirk while maintaining the high production values but yielded only a handful of highlights. By late 2003, he was big enough in America to headline the same Columbus venue P.O.D. had played three years before, a show I attended while home on winter break from college.

It wasn’t great; Gough was never known as a great performer. Within another couple years he’d drift back out of the spotlight for good, releasing albums every few years with minimal fanfare, never rekindling the inspiration that made his debut so compelling. As a result of this waning legacy, two decades after its release, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast really has become a relic and a curio, an album to be stumbled upon, full of nooks and crannies to explore. It is the obscure treasure it was always meant to be.