It’s a “Sliding Doors” moment. If, in the early noughties, it had been Travis and not Coldplay who had gone on to mega-sales, celebrity couplings and ubiquitous global domination (we would have also been spared Chris Martin’s artless, cringing bounding around the stage, but that’s another matter). Travis, the band who Martin once aspired to be, arrive in 2016 on a light downwards drift in popularity and a perception that their gentle follk/pop/indie coalition is rather too nice and comfortable to make any sort of mark these days.
The challenge for a band like Travis is whether to take on your critics and jumpstart a radical new direction, or simply give the fans (and there are still plenty of them, despite that failure to go global) a prize they never particularly hungered after from a band who prefer to showcase their music rather than their personalities. On Everything At Once, they end up a on a slightly uneasy yet simultaneously encouraging mid-point, on an unfulfilled foot-stomp. If that’s the verdict, they remain a band worth persevering with.
The first half of the album can mostly be filed under predictable Travis. The single “Magnificent Time” is a joyous jingle-jangle of a song which the band would presumably love to be adopted as a terrace chant across the outdoor festivals of the summer. But it’s undermined by the trademark mid-paced chug that Travis have too often lapsed into over the years. “Radio Song”, following, is better: more urgent, some acuity in the harmonies, and a reminder that Travis’s best tracks (above all on their best-selling and resplendent album The Man Who) have always carried an electric rock music bite that their soft pop/rock plangency hasn’t.
Fans of singer and all-round good egg Fran Healey, will be reassured that his vocal chords remain in a robust state. When Healey settles into his comfort zone, as he does on “3 Miles High” and “All Of The Places”, the effect can frankly be a bit soporific. Which is not what can be said about the startling “Idlewild”, the penultimate and the outstanding track on the album, where Travis really do break out and dare to be different. Healey, in hushed and confidential ones, leads out on the verses, but on the choruses, he plays second fiddle to the British singer Josephine Oniyama, whose stentorian preacher-like authority takes charge and lifts the song to another level. It’s an effective understated performance from Healey and the band, a fine example of “less is more” mood music. It also contains some of Healey’s best lyrics on the album (“I thought we could be good together. I thought we could weather the weather” — deep and brooding).
It’s easy to get frustrated by Travis when they play safe. “Paralysed”, based musically around a circular bass parabola and lyrically on the theme of frozen emotional and mental states, is another track where they have evidently tried to throw off their restrictive soft rock chains. In the hands of someone else more practiced in dark dystopia, “Paralysed” could have become a claustrophobic nightmare. Instead, Travis’s inability to go full-throttle leaves the song unfulfilled, caught in semi-motion.
The best music on this album will probably grow over time. Equally, I suspect that repeated listenings of the entire album will soon lead to attention wandering elsewhere as the mid-pace palls. So it’s doubtful Everything At Once will arrest gentle Travis’s steady slide. But they are certainly not done yet; their rabbit is out of the bag and it’s worth catching.