It’s difficult to comprehend just how much airplay Babybird’s “You’re Gorgeous” received back in 1996. Listening back to it now, it still stands up as a great pop song, albeit one with far more dark and sinister lyrical content than it’s success suggests. It was a massive crossover hit, and something quite unexpected for Sheffield’s Stephen Jones, a bloke who had spent the previous few years in a feverishly prolific state, releasing a series of lo-fi albums. On signing for Echo he recruited a band and re-recorded a number of his previously self-released songs along side brand new material, releasing them as Ugly Beautiful, an album which remains one of the great oddities of the 90s.
In much the same way that “You’re Gorgeous” smuggled disturbing concepts under the guise of an irresistible pop song, so Ugly Beautiful managed to get mistakenly labelled Britpop, when in actual fact it was a million miles away from the cookie-cutter blokey guitar-toting five piece style that was so inexplicably popular at the time. Babybird had much more in common with the pop experimentalism of Edwyn Collins than Cast, but even then only tangentially. Were it not for the fact that “You’re Gorgeous” was a monster hit singles, it’s doubtful that Ugly Beautiful would have even charted, though it would doubtless have found an audience of fans eventually. As it was, it’s a dark and disturbing album smuggled inside a massive pop hit, and for that reason alone, it’s a work of genius.
Considerably more lyrically involved and darker themed than almost anything else in British mainstream music at the time, Ugly Beautiful comes across like an experiment in just what Jones could dress up as a simple indie-pop song. It must have been baffling for those who just wanted an album of songs as commercial sounding as “You’re Gorgeous”, but then again, there would have been those that the album would have genuinely appealed to that would have been initially put off by the fact that it was by that act whose single had basically saturated radio for the past few months. Perhaps this was all part of a mischievous social experiment to Jones, seeing how quickly the album would find an appreciative audience and effectively ‘find its own level’.
Ugly Beautiful, in all its experimental nature, is an album that relishes its flaws. It’s certainly far too long, but that was fashionable for the CD format at the time, and there’s a general feeling of Jones doing the music equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, looking at the camera and raising an eyebrow, as if to ask the listener ‘can you believe that some suckers thought that this was going to be a pop album!’. Which may have been Jones’ point all along.