It’s something of a surprise to find yourself with a new album by Texas in your hands. Although the band never officially split up, their fans and followers might have been forgiven for thinking that 2005’s indifferently received Red Book had finally closed the book on the group’s career, especially following the massive brain aneurysm suffered in 2009 by guitarist Ally McErlaine, and the fact that Sharleen Spiteri seemed to be busily occupying herself with such nostalgia-fest solo projects as 2008’s Melody and 2010’s The Movie Songbook. But, lo and behold, McErlaine thankfully bounced back from his collapse and so, now, have Texas, emerging from their extended hiatus with a tour in 2011 and then heading to the studio to make a new record a whopping 25 years after their Southside debut.
What’s especially pleasing about this narrative is that the resulting album, The Conversation, proves to be the band’s best, most beguiling work since their late ‘90s heyday. Texas were never hip, in the eyes of the press at least, and their music, sometimes treated with snobby disdain, seemed to be viewed by many as irredeemably ersatz. But on 1997’s blockbuster White on Blonde the group successfully merged their influences to deliver one of the best albums of the ‘90s, a spectacular, hook-strewn set of soul-inflected pop/rock songs whose popularity (five successful singles and more than 1.8 million copies sold in the UK) was more than matched by its quality. The Conversation looks highly unlikely to repeat that success in terms of chart impact and it’s not, ultimately, as strong a record, lacking the quirkier touches and more opaque lyrics that have allowed White on Blonde’s songs to endure. Still, it’s a pleasing album that shows that Spiteri and co. haven’t, after all, lost their touch and finds the band playing to their strengths in a way that their more contrived, less organic last releases failed to do.
Texas have collaborated with Richard Hawley on The Conversation and the Sheffield bard’s presence shows through in the echoey, gently textured, rather Owen Bradley-esque ambience that several tracks on The Conversation exhibit. The band’s restored confidence is evident in the title track and lead-off single: a tight, catchy affair boasting a twitchy, swampy guitar hook (and a cool Peter Mullan-starring video, to boot) that finds Spiteri demanding some honest communication from a reluctant partner. The equally infectious “Dry Your Eyes” serves as an appropriate follow-up with brisk drumming and warm, sighing backing vocals accompanying the track’s portrait of a moment of sympathetic exchange between pals. These opening tracks set the tone for the album: short, punchy songs that never risk outstaying their welcome.
A complaint often made about Texas is that their work fails to transcend its inspirations. That’s true of a couple of songs on The Conversation: “Big World”, for one, wears its “Proud Mary” inclinations a tad too proudly for comfort, while “I Will Always”, though seductive in context, is finally just too generic a country waltz. But, as on White on Blonde, what’s compelling about the album is the artful way in which the band will take a familiar lyric or motif and then twirl it into new territory, meaning that while the influence is apparent the song still feels fresh. Just as White on Blonde‘s “Say What Your Want” borrowed part of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” to create a pristine new pop song, so the languid, country-ish “Maybe I” riffs on “Always on My Mind” only to dispense a chill all its own, as Spiteri’s fine, restrained vocal takes stock of a rocky romance, concluding ominously: “Maybe I didn’t mind / Maybe I didn’t cry / I needed everything to die.” The driving “Detroit City” starts out suggesting Blondie covering The Killers but the song’s gorgeous, swooning chorus and strident climax are irresistible, matched only by the tender, soaring “Hearts Are Made to Stray” for uplifting appeal.
The low-key, quietly affirmative closer “I Need Time” is less distinguished, but it’s compensated for by the lovely iTunes bonus track “Where Do You Go”, an exquisite item that would have made The Carpenters proud. The album’s deluxe edition also comes complete with a welcome (though somewhat murkily recorded) live set from one of the band’s 2011 shows that serves as a creditable greatest hits package in its own right.
The Conversation is a welcome return, then. This isn’t the album to convert the cognoscenti to the Texas cause, but those willing to listen without prejudice will find in these warm, well-crafted songs a perfectly seductive soundtrack to their summer.