[15 May 2006]
After a string of little-heard solo records released while still a member of Blur, Graham Coxon finally broke through with his first post-Blur outing, 2005’s spunky Happiness in Magazines. The decision to dance with what brung him—meat ‘n’ potatoes guitar-driven Britpop—has paid off immensely for Coxon; Happiness and now his latest, Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, rival the best of Blur’s early/mid-‘90s output, all jangly melodies and meaty hooks. And with his onetime Blurmate Damon Albarn focused on the Gorillaz and the music of Mali these days, Coxon has become the elder statesmen of topshelf Britpop.
As enjoyable as Happiness was, Love Travels may be even better. Where the earlier album covered everything from hipsters to aliens, Coxon uses the new album to breathe new life into that hoariest of music topics: Love. And, as the album title suggest, Coxon sees love as unpredictable and out of control—with good and bad connotations of both those phrases.
Love gets off to a rocky start, as the album opens with the doomed-relationship-as-sinking-ship metaphor “Standing on My Own Again”. It’s one of Coxon’s darker songs on the disc, but damned if he doesn’t sound as confident, determined and sure of himself as ever. He’s then driven crazy by lust on the snarling “Can’t Look at Your Skin” (”…cuz it’s doin’ me in” goes the full line) and “Don’t Let Your Man Know”. As the Other Man, love/lust has Coxon’s narrator crazy-emboldened: “Can I see you in your bedroom tonight?” As least he asks permission. On “Gimme Some Love”, Coxon channels ‘70s pop-punk legends the Undertones, and when he shouts the title, you’re afraid not to give to his demands.
It’s also a lack of love that’s driving Coxon crazy. “You Always Let Me Down” is a furious detour to fuzzed-out garage, and “What’s He Got?” is a great, wry look at a break-up’s aftermath. Coxon’s narrator sees his ex about town with a new beau who looks just like him (similar build! Same shoes!) and, over a bouncy hook, can’t figure out for the life of himself the answer to the titular question.
For all the rockin’ abandon discussed to this point, Coxon does a great job with the quieter, more introspective numbers as well. Among the love songs, there’s the charming, Kinksian “Flights in the Sea”, full of lush horns, tinkling pianos and heartfelt, direct sentiments like “I won’t let go of your hand”. And Coxon closes the album with the quiet “See a Better Day”, singing, point blank, “I’m so in love with you.” As for the out-of-love quiet songs, the best may be the rootsy “Don’t Believe Anything I Say”, which contains the album’s saddest line: “How did I think I’d be happier lonely?”
So yeah, love is a cliché, but in Coxon’s hands, it sounds as real and joyous and painful as we all know it to be. And even if you’re not currently in or out of love, know that with Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, Coxon is turning in some of the finest, most insightful guitar rock from either side of the Atlantic.