Music for the mediocre masses
If music weren’t important, none of this would matter. A Travis album wouldn’t be something to tie yourself up into knots over, pondering such vital questions as, what do we want from our pop stars? Attitude, glamour, volatile druggies whom we watch from afar, fascinated, appalled, enraptured? No thanks.
Or the Travis model—regular boys, like the friends you call on a Friday night in the almost certain knowledge that they’ll have nothing better to do than join you in nursing a couple of pints at the local? No, that doesn’t satisfy either.
The advantage of Travis’s plainness is that you know what to expect from them. Those who loved the sorrow-tinged yet breezy tunes on The Man Who will be just as satisfied by The Invisible Band (Sony). Listening to this third album is like coming home after travelling the world to find your slippers by the bed and your favourite mug waiting for you in the cupboard. Everything in its place and as you remember. They’ll never disappoint because they’ll never make great claims for themselves. Last year they told Q magazine that they were the “luckiest, best band in the world”, the seeming arrogance of one adjective tempered by the amazed gratitude of the other. This year they told the same magazine that they’re a “fantastic band for ordinary people”.
There’s nothing defensive in that claim (which is partly why Travis are likeable where the Stereophonics just infuriate). Travis’s role in pop is to create anthems for, if not the underdog, then the “normal” people whose lives aren’t exciting but are basically OK: decent job, decent car, decent relationship, decent house and a head full of dreams that will never be fulfilled. The Invisible Band could be music’s secular equivalent of the medieval morality play Everyman: a pocketful of advice for Joseph and Joanne Public ladled out in explicit terms.
Take the second verse of Side: “We all try hard to live our lives in harmony / For fear of falling swiftly overboard / But life is both a major and a minor key / Just open up the chord.” Or the coda to Pipe Dreams: “Whether you win or you lose isn’t gonna change a single thing.” Or the instruction in Last Train: “Search within yourself for feelings, everybody’s got them.” You’ll notice that frontman Fran Healy isn’t among the world’s great lyricists: he relies too heavily on emotional clichés, couching vapid morals in a language conversational and bland. They are worse read than heard; his voice has its horrible Cliff Richard moments (Follow the Light), but also shimmery Thom Yorke moments (Last Train) that make the words almost forgivable.
Although bassist Dougie Payne and guitarist Andy Dunlop have started writing songs, their efforts are confined to the b-side of the single Sing. This is Healy’s album. In many ways it’s the work of a man approaching 30, pondering his place in the world. A vague malaise courses through The Invisible Band, as captured in Dear Diary: “What is wrong with me? ‘Cause I’m fine between the lines.” The cover—Travis dwarfed by a centuries-old tree—and the line in Pipe Dreams, “Just a link in a chain, just a puppet on a string”, the very title of the album imply that we’re all insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But the point of pop music is to deny that, to make us feel wickedly alive with nothing more than a chord and a few coruscating words.
I don’t get that listening to Travis. I hear a strong album by a classic rock band who will grow to be the next U2, and it does nothing for me. Here are delicate melodies of a sorrowful bent, classic structures and the tiniest hints that producer Nigel Godrich also worked with Radiohead on Kid A. You glimpse his presence in The Cage‘s electronic sheen, the swirling fade-out to Safe and the way Follow the Light swallows itself up at the end like light disappearing into the centre of a television. But the songs don’t grow with repeated playing or resonate differently when I listen to them through headphones. They are what they are: Sing and Flowers in the Window are jaunty, Side is nauseating.
And so The Invisible Band raises the question: what do you want from an album? Something that you know millions of others also own, that you’ll hear blasting from every car window? Songs that comfort you with the knowledge that you’re not alone, with a chorus like “the grass is always greener on the other side, the neighbour’s got a new car that you wanna drive” (the horrid Side again), obviously designed to be belted out at rock festivals? Or something that challenges and unsettles, that holds secrets in its heart; an album that avoids all the easy paths to making people feel jolly and in doing so leaves its listeners euphoric? I know what I want, and Travis, for all their proficiency, don’t have even a teaspoon of it.