Guy Garvey is Manchester’s premier beardie dispenser of musical hugs these days, but once upon a time that title belonged to Damon Gough, Badly Drawn Boy. And whatever he’s been up to for the best part of a decade since his last album, it’s not working on a new style. Fans of his early noughties golden spell will find themselves well at home with the wonky pop and warming sentiments of Banana Skin Shoes.
I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness, You And Me Against The World, I Need Someone To Trust – the titles let you know what you’re in for – relationship up and downs, set to an ultimately uplifting soundtrack of indie one-man-bandsmanship.
Gough always used to be a man who put understatement to good use. On Year of the Rat, he hung teary sentimentality on one word: “I’m OK… always”. On You Were Right, he made missing out on history sound like a beautiful collective experience: “I remember doing nothing on the night Sinatra died / and the night Jeff Buckley died / and the night Kurt Cobain died / and the night John Lennon died / I remember I stayed up to watch the news with everyone”.
But that mix of the quotidian and the elevated is a tough tight rope to walk and too often here he tips over into Facebook post platitudes: “The best part is that the future’s unknown / And the next part of our story’s untold” (I’m Not Sure What It Is), “Is it true that it’s better to have loved and lost / Than not have loved at all?” (I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness), “If you’ve never lived, you’ll never die” (Never Change). The straightforward, mid-paced alt-pop on at least half the numbers doesn’t help matters.
When he varies the musical tone, it’s to mixed results. The title track smacks of too much time in a home studio – a messy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hotch-potch whose individual elements, like the 80s funk bassline, might have a fighting chance if they were given more room to breathe. Lead single Is This A Dream? is also fussy, yet has the album’s strongest melody to carry it and comes out winning.
There’s a lazy summer evening swing to You And Me Against The World which is quite appealing. Note To Self is a sweet little thing too. A distant-sounding arpeggiating acoustic guitar provides a change of pace, although the platitudes are still in evidence. Colours sees him embrace swirling EDM bass and synth and wouldn’t be out of place on Beck’s album of the same name. Appletree Boulevard is more like what the doctor ordered – a sleepy twilight rumination. “How the sands of time blur the edges of our dreams,” he sings. More pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo, maybe, but fitting of its musical context.
We need to talk about Tony Wilson Said, though – the weird tribute to the late music svengali. Not weird for being about Tony Wilson per se, but for the manner in which it’s done. It’s him in name but not in spirit. To the sound of jaunty, white-boy funk (which come to think of it, might be quite TW), BDB does a “shout-out to the city”, combining North Korean level idolisation – “He symbolised and crystallised freedom, a King with no crown” – with tourist board friendly name-checking of the Apollo, Boardwalk, Hacienda – and Buzzfeed factoids for the entry level music fan – “Factory Records with their contracts signed in blood”. It’s as sanitised and pre-packaged as Manchester itself has become. Ian Curtis is spinning in his grave.
Gough himself has spoken of being overshadowed by the success of his debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, proud of its impact, but not wanting to mark its anniversaries and frustrated that it came to define him. He won’t escape it by producing an album whose selling points are essentially the same. Banana Skin Shoes is less folky, more like Bewilderbeast‘s follow-ups, but still ticks the same boxes and still a few tracks too long. It should score highly among those who were coming of age then and want something to roll those years away.