So disappointing was Travis’s fourth album 12 Memories, that the feeling among many people (including yours truly) was, “Well, that was fun while it lasted.” After playing a major role in ushering in the post-Britpop, post-Radiohead wave of introspective UK rockers during the late 90s with such smash albums as Good Feeling, The Man Who, and The Invisible Band, and thanks in large part to some of the most affable singles of the time, everything fell flat in late 2003 as the Scottish foursome bravely tried to shed their “nice guy” tag. Songs focused more on the war in Iraq, Tony Blair, the band’s internal strife, and whatever else was sticking in singer/guitarist Fran Healy’s craw at the time, the musical arrangements were more stark, and the album cover featured artsy Anton Corbijn photos. Hell, Fran even tried growing his hair out. Anything to avoid being thought of as “that band that plays ‘Why Does it Always Rain on Me’”. It was a bold move, and not without a couple admirable moments (namely “Love Will Come Through” and the chilling “Re-Offender”), but unfortunately it was one that blew up in the band’s face. Cosequently, while peers like Coldplay, Muse, and Snow Patrol continued to become more successful, Travis was stuck with its lowest-selling album to date.
It took a dud of an album for Travis to figure out that being adventurous and dark doesn’t really suit the band, nor does it impress its audience, and with the release of the excellent Singles compilation in late 2004, it seemed like the boys were on the verge of calling it a day. Three years since the 12 Memories misstep, though, the foursome is back with a more clear-headed attitude, a familiar face in Nigel Godrich back producing (having last worked on The Invisible Band), and a more positive outlook that’s reflected in the songwriting. Hell, they’ve even returned to a similarly-themed cover photo as their two biggest sellers. While The Boy With No Name is not without the odd flaw or two, it’s a very welcome return to form by a band that has managed to right itself in time to give its fans what they want, and hopefully repeat the success of earlier this decade.
The days of robust, loud guitar-driven tunes like “All I Wanna Do is Rock” and “Turn” a distant memory, The Boy With No Name continues where songs like “Flowers in the Window” and “Sing” left off, which means if you found that stuff cloying back then, you’d probably be better off staying away. On the other hand, if you’re a sucker for gentle pop hooks, tastefully layered guitars that avoid post punk showboating, and lilting vocal melodies, then this’ll suit you fine. After the sullenness and disillusionment of the previous record, Healy is back in full lovey-dovey mode, and while his lyrics can make the album seem like you’re sitting through an extended episode of Mad About You, he sells such earnest, rosy-hued sentiment especially well. In fact, few singers can spew such sickly sweet lyrics as, “You know that I heart everything about you,” and make it sound as sincere as Healy can, and therein lies this modest album’s charm.
The one track that assures us that the Travis of old is back is the first single, “Closer”. After all the bellyaching and psychological purging on 12 Memories, Healy and his mates stick to their strengths and pull off an understated beauty of a song. Over a gently thrumming rhythm section by bassist Dougie Payne and drummer Neil Primrose, guitarist Andrew Dunlop provides lovely E-bowed guitar fills as Healy croons about craving something much simpler than fretting about war and depression: human contact. It’s an unabashedly optimistic approach, but the band and Godrich keep things on an even keel, skillfully avoiding bombast and maudlin sentiment.
The intro to “Selfish Jean”, which blatantly swipes the central hook from Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life”, will get eyes rolling, but once Dunlop comes in with his chiming arpeggios and Healy with his shuffling acoustic guitar, the mood shifts from awkward faux-punk to sprightly skiffle, Healy keeping the mood light with ludicrous lines like, “You keep the chocolate biscuits wired to a car alarm.” The gentle yet insistent “Big Chair” is one of Travis’s most spacious songs to date, centering on a shuffling beat and a nervous bassline, its smooth accompaniment by synth and piano resembling Coldplay’s more restrained moments. Healy’s ever-reliable tenor voice carries “Battleships”, while fellow Scottish star KT Tunstall provides warm vocal accompaniment on the shimmering “Under the Moonlight”, a song begging for single release.
Past the midway point, the album does start to lose steam. “One Night” pours on the melodrama a little too thickly, “Out in Space” sounds like a toss-off, Healy’s melodies paling in comparison to the previous stronger moments, and the New York tribute of “New Amsterdam” comes off as hollow and pretentious (right down to the inclusion of the sounds of birds chirping, horse hooves clopping, and sirens wailing), clashing with the album’s more intimate feel. Still, the disappointing moments are fleeting, as Travis has figured out that the niche they created for themselves eight years ago is a comfy one, a sound which, inoffensive and safe as it may be, suits the band perfectly.