Since 2000, Randy Travis has made four albums of strictly religious material. Around the Bend doesn’t fit that bill, and thus has been labeled his first country album in eight years. Faith is still part of the picture, though, even as these are comparatively secular songs. There are two songs where men drop to their knees to confess, either out of desperation or regret. Another song offers nostalgia, in jest, over children squirming their way through church services. A few songs make reference to the eternal, to the great beyond, to going home once and for all. And there are a few love songs with religious overtones. That sort of song has been somewhat of a staple of his getting-close-to-30-year career, actually, going back to some of his earlier hits, like 1987’s “Forever and Ever, Amen”.
The album’s first single “Faith in You” is along those lines, a song where is singing to a lover, but seems to have one eye looking skyward. Lyrics like “I can hear your laughter / It’s the sweetest sound I’ve ever known” emphasis the physical, while lyrics like “the more I search for my significance / the more I disappear” bring up the metaphysical. The song has the build-up and sentimental strings of a proper soft-pop love ballad. But at the beginning of each verse, over less adorned though still sentimental piano, he sings with a plain-spoken sense of heart-baring, his voice rising up to emphasize lines like “I don’t have faith in politics but I do believe in the will of the people.”
Those sections of that song stand out because Travis rarely sounds that strident. He seems generally restrained, calm. Even when he sings about feeling anxious he doesn’t inject his singing with that much of an anxious feeling. The opening track “Around the Bend” is the song of a man forever searching, but Travis’s singing plays up the survival more than the continual struggle, even with lyrics like “I still got the fight / Still got the fever.” It’s not fight or fever that the song exudes, it’s achievement, the sense that it’s been a long road but he’s made it quite a way. The most affecting moment is near the end, when he sings with a quiet confidence. It’s glass-half-full singing, perhaps, even when the lyrics paint an uncertain picture. The second song, “You Didn’t Have a Good Time”, tells a story with a lot of pain and tumult in it, an alcoholic’s story, but Travis sings it as the dispassionate narrator. That style doesn’t make the song less likely to affect listeners emotionally, but the response seems more dependent on the individual or the moment, on how the song catches you, since he doesn’t go out of his way to hit buttons.
Travis’s presence, here and usually, is that of the steady hand. He sings melodies exceedingly well, above many of his peers, and has a distinctive-sounding voice, rich in texture. His singing is careful and un-showy. The lack of any eccentricity or wildness in his voice makes it easier for him to sound dull, or at least emotion-dulling, if the song itself isn’t up to snuff or doesn’t match his style. For example, “Every Head Bowed” on paper seems like it should be hilarious, a folksy Garrison Keilor-like tale of children squirming in church. He sings it so straight, though, that the humor slips past.
When he sings the right well-crafted song, though, as he mostly does on Around the Bend, everything falls right in line and he achieves what could be considered perfection. Another singer would be tempted to try and sound dangerous in “Turn It Around”, a song of passion and heartbreak. Or to sound more battered in “Everything That I Own (Has Got a Dent)”. But the more humble way he sings those songs – the first one almost contrite, the second with a sense of humor – seems exactly right as he sings them. He seems to sing them intuitively, sticking close to the melodies and knowing how to best use his even-keeled persona. He does the same on “Love Is a Gamble” and “Dig Two Graves”, sentimental love ballads with great melodies and lyrics that are again tinged with spiritual devotion.
That steady countenance also sets us up for surprises. The album’s final track, “’Til I’m Dead and Gone”, is one, a rollicking working man’s song, leaning towards bluegrass, that he sings with an unexpected grit, an almost intense determination that carries with it loneliness and the sense that it’s death he’s fighting. It’s the sort of song an alt-country fan would fall all over if it was recorded by someone on Bloodshot, or Steve Earle, instead of a Warner Brothers artist to whom the commercial country charts are no stranger. And what’s more, Travis sings it with more strength and atmosphere than any hipper singer possibly could.
Another surprise comes halfway through the album. It’s of almost the opposite variety: removing the grit instead of amplifying it. Travis covers Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, a bitter song, and rids it of that bitterness. He sings it almost happy, as if the narrator really means that it is all right if she doesn’t think twice. He takes the song at its word. He makes it strangely giddy. Yet instead of seeming like he’s mis-interpreting the song, it comes off as a casual reinvention, fitting the song to what comes naturally to Travis as a performer. In the process he shines a great big spotlight on the strength of the song’s melody, revealing Dylan’s songwriting gift again even while he takes the song in a different direction. The most fascinating thing about Around the Bend may be how interesting Travis makes the songs while singing them in a style that should be un-interesting, for its lack of pizzazz. His steady, patient style seems be one smooth surface but isn’t. There’s depth within this one man’s voice, now as much as ever.
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