Fanfare forthe Common Man
Travis frontman Fran Healy has said that the band’s latest release is a concept album about a not very pleasant man named J. Smith. That may be true. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to be read in a variety of ways. There does seem to be a tenuous connection made about the central character from track to track, but the narrative goes off on strange and obscure tangents for no particular reason. British critics have compared the Scottish band’s new album to the great ‘70s concept records of the Kinks, and this does seem apt. Like those old Kinks’ long players, the best way to enjoy Ode to J. Smith is as individual songs based on their own merits. The total storyline is relatively unimportant. The qualities of the individual cuts matter most. For the most part, the songs succeed as clever and interesting sonic excursions into the mind and worldview of the title character. As a whole, the album is a mixed accomplishment.
Fans of the old Travis should be forewarned. This is not the soft rock band that sold millions of units with lush albums like The Man Who and Invisible Band and made sad, moody singles like “Why Does It Always Rain on Me” and “Sing”. The most striking thing about the new album is how much emphasis there is on the percussion and bass to push the music forward. The keyboards function as a rhythm instrument. The electric guitars use distortion and feedback, or the chords morph into chunky riffs that ring like bells over the heavy beats. The vocals can be clearly heard because they are sung loudly and at times even screamed. In Brit terms, this is more Libertines than Coldplay. In other words, this is a real rock record. It’s morbid rather than morose, bluesy not blue.
Changing music for changing times, so what does the plight of J. Smith say about the world in which we live now? He’s no Joe the Plumber living in the material world. His concerns seem more essential, more spiritual, and maybe more self-absorbed. He swears at the sun and curses the moon. He’s on the way down, but he doesn’t know how far down is. He values his freedom and therefore makes a bad friend and a poor lover, bur he doesn’t want to be alone. Sound confusing? Taken as a whole, J. Smith leads a life of existential drama where nothing quite fits.
But taken in pieces—song by song—the fragments make sense. Smith himself aptly compares his life to a broken mirror in a song by that name. Smith may be Mr. Everyman, but each person is made up of different parts. On the best tracks, like “Get Up” and “Song to Self”, he rails against his own apathy and disinterestedness. He knows the meaning of life all comes down to what he does with it. The music on these tunes becomes insistent and swells into small, repeating climaxes.
However, this is not the “Ode to Joy”. Smith never achieves a great revelation or even a small redemption, although there is a dramatic Latin chorus at the end of the title tune that wouldn’t seem out of place in church. Travis seem to be saying that we live in a world where nothing makes sense, we are not very nice to each other, and there are no second chances. Something, anything would be better, as Travis says in the song “Something, Anything”. But the best we can hope for is to take another breath. Well, that’s something. That’s life.
Or that’s death. Travis understands its only in our mortality that we can find the meaning of life. The Scottish lads Have grown up to find life’s promises may be a bunch of rubbish. But they understand that we can still find catharsis in music. Let’s rock!