Pop records can come with some pretty heavy reps. Travis‘ The Man Who appears in the U.S. after moving two and a half million copies in Britain, where it was 1999’s sales leader. And indeed, this amazingly mature second album from the Scottish quartet seems sprung from another solar system entirely rather than an America full of gleaming teenpoppers hot to sing Diane Warren, and rock and hip-hop acts impressed with the culture of the World Wrestling Federation. Yet into this world fall Travis. They are former art-schoolers who title their album after Oliver Sacks‘ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and dedicate it to the late Stanley Kubrick. They’re just a touch different.
In their songs, which favor slowish tempos and draw sleekly on some Continental cabaret and film-music sources, Travis often are unhappy; despite an instrumental ease of aeronautical precision (sometimes facilitated by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich), their emotional distress is front and center. But Travis‘ is a different approach to misery than that of Morrissey or the Cure’s Robert Smith, who spent the ‘80s equally obsessed with pain but convinced that exaggeration, either auntishly written or psychedelically lipsticked-up, seemed the best way to capture woe in rock.
Travis’ unblinking acceptance of emotional strife is thoroughly late-‘90s, which is to say that it has been affected not so much by the Smiths or the Cure — or even Pink Floyd — but by those more recent kings of departure-lounge malaise, Radiohead. People who doubt that The Man Who represents the most impressive U.K. pop album in years may confuse Travis’ bleaker moods with Radiohead‘s actual music. Or, as someone cleverly suggested, ”The first song sounds like Radiohead and the second song sounds like Radiohead and the third song sounds like Radiohead, and the fourth song sounds like Radiohead.“
This is amusing but untrue. Although hardly hard rock and only so fast, Travis’ music is more jealously song-oriented than the work of the Oxford experimentalists. Radiohead‘s music, although it shifts into poignant focus, is at heart pure rock-star exotica — it creeps, it explores spaced-out vistas, it distorts, it re-examines machinery, it wears leather trousers; it’s like a $2,500 bottle of wine. On a windswept triumph of rousing earnestness like ”Turn“ or a masterpiece of romantic dislocation like ”Luv,“ Travis‘ music manages the rare virtue of deceptively plain pop-song focus. Their music is more like great water, a particularly resonant brand of buried flash.
In ”Writing To Reach You,“ the first of many wonders on The Man Who, it’s Christmas. A young man awakens with a sore eye. Hit music that might have exhilarated him a season ago now sounds repetitively stale; ”What‘s a wonderwall, anyway?“ singer and songwriter Fran Healy wonders, his narrator tired even of those widely beloved English mainstays Oasis. With a stylistically dazzling embargo on much further detail, Healy — whose lead vocals are lush yet never over-the-top, always restricted by sanity — and Travis whip up a finely guitar-toned groove of overwhelming dramatic lucidity and scope. The track conjures the kind of real consequence not unlike, say, how John Gielgud once sized up the situation in Hamlet — coming home from school, finding that your dad’s died, your girlfriend‘s flaked, and your mum is going out with your uncle. In Travis’ song, the singer meets resistance from another person clearly important to him; ”I only want to teach you,“ Healy sings smoothly, readying a couple of gorgeously brief cantilevered vocal phrases, ”about youbut that‘s not you.“
For Travis on The Man Who, a lack of happiness is just part of the daily deal, its presence no less remarkable than mail delivery. ”I can’t stand myself,“ Healy concludes in an almost jaunty tune whose virtuosic pop melody owes Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl; the song is named, tellingly, ”Why Does It Always Rain on Me?“ In another, strummier piece that taps folk eroticism but is still edged in the satisfyingly figured-out sound of contemporary London pop recording, Healy‘s wish that a woman wake up in bed with him spirals into the nonfatal paralysis that she will, in fact, not. ”All I wanted,“ he confesses, ”was the chance to sayI would like to see you in the morning.“ This song is named, also tellingly, ”The Fear.“
Of course Travis aren’t the first bunch of gifted pop musicians to meet and wrestle with communication breakdowns. As one old pop pro once correctly guessed, I think that‘s why they call it the blues.