Difficult third album? Come off it...
Three years after their double Brit-winning, Glasto-rocking, Dad-friendly sophomore opus ‘The Man Who’ ate the charts and shagged the radio, do Travis still belong to us or have they auctioned their corporate souls to Bryan Adams bigness? Should we lambast their spark-free normality or salute their essentially conservative charms as keenly as their like-minded lo-fi cousins Alfie, The Beta Band and Badly Drawn Boy?
The anti-Travis lobby will find ample ammunition here. In places, universal sentiments blur into greetings-card platitudes, and heart-tugging hooks unravel into radio-jingle banality; songs like ‘Side’, about the grass looking greener on the other side, or ‘Pipe Dreams’, with its lazy refrain about life being essentially the same whether you win or lose. Then there’s the chiming New Agey trifle ‘Follow The Light’, and the ho-hum contentment anthem with the kick-me title, ‘Safe’. Fran Healy comes down with Kelly Jones Syndrome here, mistaking middling social observation for sharp social comment, and unadorned busking for soulful self-revelation.
Then again, just as only a dogmatic sourpuss could resist the stirring emotional wallop of Kelly’s best work, so only a cloth-eared killjoy would deny the brittle, doleful, chiming beauty of ‘Dear Diary’. Or the sublime acoustic melancholy of burnt-out-affair lament ‘The Cage’, with its brimming falsetto musings on romantic loss. Or the simmering fever dream of ‘Last Train’, in which Healy plans murderous revenge against an ex-lover. In dealing with heartbreak, as with all emotions, Healy applies a delicate dignity that is almost inaudible at first but shines through more strongly with each listen. This is not the behaviour of a sales-driven cynic, more a man in love with the subtle nuances of songwriting.
What’s wrong with ‘The Invisible Band’? It feels self-consciously downbeat and rustic, with a Gomez-style, recorded-in-a-shed sheen which belies Nigel Godrich’s pristine, state-of-the-art production. There are no rocket-powered ‘All I Wanna Do Is Rock’ scorchers and nothing as instantly hummable as ‘Writing To Reach You’. And what’s great about this record? No deeply annoying ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’ irritants. No brazen Radioheadechoes, just plenty of Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, latter-day Beatles and even – oh yes – bilious folk maverick Roy Harper. Timeless, simply expressed, inescapably real feelings. Not forgetting, of course, one of the finest voices in British pop.
Not stunning, not cutting-edge, but not stick-in-the-mud and sour like the last Stereophonics outing. Travis won’t bully you into loving or hating them, they rely on old-fashioned charm. And sometimes, that is more than enough.