by Elliot Davies
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, Badly Drawn Boy is playing his 2000 debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, in its entirety. Kicking off his tour in Nottingham, the only person more overwhelmed than our reviewer was Badly Drawn Boy himself.
Many of us hold certain teachers responsible for helping us to become the people we are today. For me, two such teachers come to mind. First there’s Mr. Stanley, who taught me to love the beautiful eccentricities of the English language. Then there’s Mr. Spears, the art teacher who looked uncannily like George Harrison circa All Things Must Pass.
Mr. Spears wasn’t especially influential in himself, but he did occasionally play music while we sat there and painted. And for a long while, his album of choice was The Hour of Bewilderbeast by Badly Drawn Boy.
I liked what I heard so much that I eventually obtained my own copy, and it soon became the first album to ever really connect with me. For a period of at least 18 months, I must have listened to that album five times a week, and often more. My family soon grew sick of it. But for me, it never lost its appeal.
As is always the case with albums or songs that kickstart a lifelong obsession with music, Hour of Bewilderbeast became the standard by which everything else I heard was judged. As a gateway album, it ensured that I’d always value dusty production values over slick radio sheen; intricate arrangements over primal thrashes; heavy themes over heavy guitars; and albums over songs.
But above all, Hour of Bewilderbeast is a bloody weird album that flits breathlessly from style to style and genre to genre. Songs bleed into each other via atmospheric segues that were, at the time, rather disturbing.
These days, when it comes to music, I’m voracious: there’s no limit to the places I’ll go to to get my fix, and I find that I can only spend so long immersed in any given sound before it’s time to seek fresher waters once more.
Hour of Bewilderbeast taught me that there’s no “right” way for music to sound. It opened my mind, and my mind is yet to close. It’s an adventurous album. Having heard it at just the right age, it transformed me into a tirelessly adventurous listener.
It’s quite common these days for bands and artists to play albums in their entirety. Most critics insist that this is a Bad Thing because…reasons! But for those who really like music – the fans – shows at which albums are played live in their entirety can be truly life affirming experiences. They provide an irresistible opportunity to hear those life-changing songs in precisely the order that was initially so potent, but in a way that serves to reignite whatever part of you it was that fell in love with life in the first place.
I’ve seen quite a few bands play through whole albums, but this is the first of such performances that matters. This is the first time I’ve seen, replicated live and in full, an album that I can honestly say changed my life. Expectations are running high, and I’m more than a little nervous. It’s not just a question of whether the show will do my memories justice. A large part of me is also wondering, with some trepidation, just how in the hell some of these weird songs could possibly be played live.
Well, he does it. With an extremely talented four piece backing band, he bloody does it. This feat is impressive enough, but what’s even more stunning is that, despite the presence of a laptop and two tablets onstage, there’s minimal use of samples. Some of the stranger noises and studio trickery is pre-recorded. But apart from that, absolutely everything is played live.
Opener The Shining is one of the best songs of the 21st century. It’s one of those songs that’s like a much needed hug from a loved one, or a hot cup of tea on a bitterly cold day. For me, it’s less a song, and more a cornerstone; and when he sings “to put a little bit of sunshine in your life”, I blink something back. If only it were possible to tell him just how much sunshine he’s put into my life over the past 15 years.
The Shining segues, loudly and abruptly, into the jazzy post-punk of Everybody’s Stalking – just like it does on the album! But as the sort of obsessive fan who keeps a careful track of setlists, I know that Badly Drawn Boy has kicked off all of his recent shows with this exact one-two punch, before delving into some of his more recent material. At this point, I’m still not sure that an album as complicated as Bewilderbeast can be replicated live. I’m fully prepared for him to announce that he’ll be skipping some of the stranger, shorter songs from the album in favour of its bigger, less complex numbers.
But no. Just like on the album, Everybody’s Stalking is followed by Bewilder, a short harmonium instrumental. Once this starts, the man next to me laughs loudly while shaking his head. Apparently, I’m not the only one who doubted Badly Drawn Boy’s ability to deliver.
The appearance of Bewilder – quite possibly the first time this song has ever been played live – is the first indication that this is going to be a really special night. He really is going to play all of Bewilderbeast! It’s also the first of many moments that can only be described with the use of the word “even”:
- He even does the strange underwater flamenco bit from Fall In A River!
- He even plays Body Rap, with a full band and with the sudden shift into Once Around The Block!
- He even does the scary bit from Cause a Rockslide, complete with fairground organ and woozy acoustic coda!
- He even does the haunted house interlude between Disillusion and Say It Again!
They promised to play Bewilderbeast in its entirety, and that’s exactly what they do. This night marks the first time such a feat has ever been attempted, and at several points certain members of the band grin at each other, as if they’re just as thrilled they’re pulling it off as we are.
Given that every single one of these 18 songs now runs through my being like DNA code, it’s hard to specify highlights. The whole thing was an emotionally overwhelming rush. Nonetheless, certain moments raised more goosebumps than others:
- The gorgeous mercurial jam at the start of Fall in a River!
- The entire performance of Stone on the Water – THE song that initially made me want to learn guitar!
- The chiming psychedelia of Another Pearl!
- The incandescent beauty of Magic in the Air – a song with a title that serves to describe the atmosphere of the whole evening!
- The joyful crowd singalong during Pissing in the Wind, during which our beloved Badly Drawn Boy looked genuinely touched!
- A loose, bluesy, BRILLIANT Say It Again!
There’s a few technical hiccups throughout – nothing that a few more days on the road won’t iron out – but the only moment at which the whole thing faltered comes right at the end.
The closing track of Bewilderbeast is Epitaph, a song that’s so intimate that listening to it has the same sort of invasive quality as perusing a stranger’s family photo albums. Seemingly conscious of the sheer rawness of this song, Badly Drawn Boy nervously admits that he hasn’t practiced it. He strums a few tentative chords, but he can’t get it right. So instead, he picks up the lyric sheet, and performs it acapella.
But he doesn’t quite make it to the end. The last line is rushed, his voice cracks, and he hastily leaves the stage in tears.
It’s a moment of naked vulnerability to which the crowd reacts with uproarious applause. Perhaps their applause is the only means available of stemming their own flow of tears. Or maybe their enthusiasm is intended to send a message to the boy that, despite or because of his breakdown, we’re absolutely on his side. In any case, he soon comes back onstage and apologises for getting so overwhelmed, promising to return as soon as he’s collected himself.
When he returns, he does an acoustic medley of songs from his About A Boy soundtrack, starting with A Minor Incident. This song is devastating. It’s implausible that somebody who, just five minutes before, visibly broke down onstage, should then be able to sing these words:
There’s nothing I could say
To make you try to feel OK
And nothing you could do
To stop me feeling the way I do
And if the chance should happen
That I never see you again
Just remember that I’ll always love you
I lose it. I do. I’m stood right at the front, and at one point – I might be mistaken – but his eyes seem to meet mine. And I lose it. I have to look away and breathe deeply.
He eventually brings the band back. From his criminally underrated It’s What I’m Thinking we get I Saw You Walk Away, and then he finishes with a couple of fan favourites: You Were Right and Silent Sigh.
Given that it’s the album that changed my life, of course I like Hour of Bewilderbeast more than anything else Badly Drawn Boy’s ever done. In a recent Guardian interview, he’s claimed that it’s somewhat frustrating to meet fans who only want to talk about his debut. I therefore feel quite guilty to admit that his encore feels rather anticlimactic.
But it’s only anticlimactic in as much as songs that are, for me, utterly indispensable, are followed by songs that are merely very, very, very good. But in any case, this encore serves to confirm that, beyond his acclaimed Mercury-winning debut, Badly Drawn Boy’s output has been consistently excellent. And yet, he feels undervalued. He’s frequently dismissed as an early noughties fly-by-night oddity; a mildly amusing placeholder to keep us entertained while we awaited the arrival of The Strokes, or The Libertines, or whatever, to “save” music.
Those who have stuck with him, though, know that the music of Badly Drawn Boy is timeless. True, he’s never quite scaled the heights of his debut, but to kick off a career with Hour of Bewilderbeast is the equivalent of Pink Floyd kicking off their career with The Dark Side of the Moon. That he achieved perfection right from the start means that all that has followed can only pale in comparison. But that doesn’t stop him from being one of the best songwriters Britain has ever produced.
In the aforementioned Guardian article, it’s suggested that the Bewilderbeast tour is an opportunity for Badly Drawn Boy to relaunch himself. Let’s hope that, this time round, Britain doesn’t take one of its finest and most talented of artists for granted.
Badly Drawn Boy will be touring Hour of Bewilderbeast throughout July. Click here for a complete list of dates.