When I interviewed Fran Healy in early 2011, the frontman for Travis pointed out his band’s unintentional use of a particular theme in the cover art of their albums. The front of the band’s transatlantic breakthrough album The Man Who showed the four Scotsmen standing at a distance from the camera, all wearing coats. In 2007, the music press was prone to comparing The Boy With No Name to The Man Who, leading Healy to believe that the artwork spoke much of the album. But to him, it was as simple as him just “trying to write small songs again.” The “again” in that sentence suggests that Travis had strayed from the nice-guy pop upon which their fame and sales were built. The musical changes Travis went through during this time were subtle, but there was a shift in Healy’s lyrics by the time 2003’s 12 Memories dropped. By this point, he was protesting the invasion of Iraq and domestic violence. Change was in the air, even if it was the slow kind.
So when I first caught a glimpse of the cover of Travis’s Where You Stand, I couldn’t help but consider Healy’s theory. There they are, standing far from the camera — so far that I can’t tell if they’re wearing coats or not (the cattle look a little camera shy). Is this a return to writing smaller songs after the aggressive show of strength that was Ode to J. Smith? Yes, no, not applicable, all of the above, none of the above — how’s that for a noncommittal answer? Where You Stand is a varied album, but it won’t register as such if you’re just passively listening. On the surface, it operates on the same steady Travis hum that has propelled their most beloved albums. Just like their long-term change, the band moves in subtle ways on a micro level as well. Bending your ear towards the speakers will reveal that Where You Stand vibrates in a small variety of pop styles. Sure, there are small songs comparable to The Man Who and The Boy With No Name. There’s also bigger sounds that come with shades of attitude not unlike 12 Memories and Ode to J. Smith. A few snippets here and there may even remind you of another band entirely. But by the end of the 42-minute run time, it’s no one else but Travis. It’s raining on them and they’re singing.
And rather than bring Nigel Godrich or Emery Dobyns back on board, Michael Ilbert plops down in the producer’s chair for Where You Stand. He’s a man who’s engineering resumé reads like an absolute mess; P!nk, Avril Lavigne, Ke$ha, The Hives, Allison Iraheta — it’s a headache just to glance at it. Whatever Travis saw in Ilbert must be a personal connection or something close to it. As mellow as the band can get, they’ve never become so sanded over to the point of sounding like suffocatingly commercial claptrap. And with Ilbert in charge, that still doesn’t happen. Whatever Ilbert does in fact bring to the sessions is hard to pinpoint, but it seems to, for the most part, suit Travis well. Working within the confines of their pretty pop sound, the band give themselves a few moments to flex here and there while never teetering towards indulgence. If Where You Stand isn’t Travis’s best album, then I feel justified in saying that it at least feels like a(n almost) perfect little Travis album.
One of the minor differences of which I write is the rebounding synthesizer that creaks the door open on lead-off track “Mother”. It’s so quiet that when the full band enters, it feels authentically loud by comparison. From there, the band is off and running with Healy trying to make up for lost time. “Answer me this question, then I’m gone / Why did we wait so long?” The single “Moving” is even more explicit about Travis’s overcoming their stagnation: “I try to run, I try to find my feet / My soul is sticking to the street”. The easy melody unveils more feelings of travel and inertia, with Healy singing “And I could feel, the ground beneath my wheels / Putting me back in my place” like it’s nothing at all. And since the singer is such a sincere and sensitive guy, we can forgive his platitudes that he doles out on “Reminder”: “Celebrate, don’t be late / Finish what’s on your plate / Be the change you wanna see / Seek the truth, set it free.”
The single that Travis fans got to hear earlier this year via a free download was “Another Guy”. And although it didn’t really stand out as anything unique as one lone little mp3, it comes across differently in the context of Where You Stand. This is the only song here that sounds like bassist Dougie Payne and drummer Neil Primrose were kidnapped and replaced by Radiohead’s rhythm section. The malevolent throb of the bass and drums is at odds with Healy’s voice, but not his lyrics, a classic case of passive jealousy by shrugging “Say what you want / But it won’t change a thing.” But sometimes experiments just remain experiments, proving to be neither successes nor failures. “New Shoes” ought to get some credit for trying to use a trip-hop backdrop, but I’m afraid that the merits end there. And coda “The Big Screen”, a piano/bass/vocal ballad comparing life to cinema, feels like an unceremonious demo used to wrap up such a colorful album. It isn’t until the song’s final 54 seconds that reverb is added to Healy’s voice and a levitating tremolo hovers softly in the background.
So while the various Easter eggs that Michael Ilbert and Travis apply to their sound are not necessarily new things to the pop world at large, they are new to Travis. Embedded between these tiny quirks is that signature Travis warmth that the band has used to great advantage ever since “Writing to Reach You” touched many an ear all those years ago. The title track, the story of a friend offering unconditional support, lays all the band’s best cards on the table, complete with a delicate arrangement and a soaring chorus:
“I forfeit my time
While you make up your mind
So tell me
If you ever find your flag
Cause I will be right by you where you stand.”