'HOW can I give you the answers you need, when all I possess is a melody?" asks Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, on How?, the centrepiece of his third album. It is a fair question.

Do we ask too much of our diminishing pool of premium-grade rock talent, particularly those like Gough who emerge from nowhere, looking like a Big Issue seller, to walk off with the Mercury Music Prize in 2000 with his holistic debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast?

That was a quietly personal work as mad yet warm and natural as his trademark woolly hat, the Bolton one-man band bringing a home-recording honesty to mining the songwriting styles of both Lennon and McCartney while alluding to the magpie instincts of the likes of Beck and Moby.

The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was affecting not affected, and you knew that the media's hanging judges would not grant him that privilege again. His tender and playful soundtrack for About A Boy, to support a wan Hugh Grant comedy not Gough himself, gracefully held the hounds at bay and had a couple of joyful singles along the way but the pressure always mounts. Now the critics' court is in session, deciding whether Badly Drawn Boy is just a card rather than a wild card with talent to burn.

The single You Were Right answers all the sceptics: a flirtatious guitar and strings serenade lyrics that delight with their bathos and wit as he turns down a date with Madonna and reflects on posthumous fame. The chirpy milkman's whistle towards the end shows he feels no pressure.

Far from becoming more arch, Gough has gone for a straightforward, sometimes ragged approach, the guitar more prominent, the stoned buffoonery curtailed, on songs of love and life that swing from kitchen-sink to off-the-wall.

And yes, he does possess melody, and that is what makes him increasingly rare, precious, original, in these days of computer-generated pop.

Updated: 10:27 Thursday, October 31, 2002