At the start of the century, in the UK at least, Travis were everywhere. Their brand of earnest, plangent indie rock was a soothing balm for the pre/post-millennium morass, which threatened to make airplanes crash from the skies and terminally alter the calendars on our home computers. Travis were dependable. Melodic songs, well sung, and no surprises. Probably against their will, the band became the dinner party muzak for upwardly mobile university graduates to not quite listen to as they diligently munched their quinoa. They graciously opened the door, and an orderly line of well-scrubbed, middle-class bands led by Coldplay politely said “thank you” and watched the downloads rise. But now, they’re back, even though they never really went away.
10 Songs is the distilled essence of Travis. The band seem to have looked at their Wikipedia entry, highlighted all the keywords, and made exactly that album. The trick which songwriter Fran Healy has performed so brilliantly is to make the ten songs on 10 Songs sound like all your favorite Travis tunes, but ever-so-slightly reimagined. The mournful vocals, the strummy acoustic guitars, and the limpid melodies. They’re all present and correct and front and center. Except more so.
There are no lackluster songs, but there are no showstoppers either. The listener gets 38 minutes of polished pop that’s as reliable as an atomic clock. The opening track “Waving at a Window” sets the tone beautifully. An electric guitar ripples prettily, a piano tinkles, and Healy floats an effortless vocal line over the top. It’s simple music incredibly well rendered. What gives this record its character are the details. The art lies in the string arrangement and Susannah Hoffs’ vocal on “The Only Thing”, the White Album sensibility and ferocious fuzz bass of “Valentine” and the gentle country sway of “Butterflies”. These are deft and purposeful touches that turn ordinary songs into pocket classics.
Fran Healy knows how to write a song, and he knows how to sing it, too. There’s an irresistible ache to his voice, which is another one of those details that the band use so well. On “A Ghost”, he sounds almost jaunty but jaunty like Michael Stipe, not jaunty like Mike Love. There’s even a little self-help message too “It’s easier to be alive / Than hide under your pillow while your life is passing you by.” For most of us, stuck in the perpetual Sunday afternoon that 2020 has turned into, that’s the motivation we can relate to.
Healy’s favorite Beatle was definitely Paul McCartney. “All Fall Down” would sit very nicely on McCartney’s first solo album, with its stripped-back instrumentation and direct lyric, which leads us neatly into “Kissing in the Wind”. Anyone who’s a fan of the songs of Stephen Duffy will appreciate the charming string arrangement and the gently circling vocal melody. And when the guitar sneaks in towards the end, the song goes up to another level.
The albums’ “cell phone-in-the-air” moment comes in the form of “Nina’s Song”, which tries a little too hard to be an epic. The strings and the slightly leaden playing hold the song back here. If and when live gigs ever return, it’ll be a different story, however. They’ll extend it to twice the length, everyone will hug each other, and the world will be a lovely place again. Until the hangover kicks in.
It’s easy to criticize Travis. After all, all they do, is make nice pleasant pop, right? But they do it so very well. They wrote the book on the subject, so they’re allowed to glance at it now and then, surely? The very fact that this record is called 10 Songs sums the band up. It’s the new Travis album. It’s got ten songs on it. Fortunately, most of them are great. If you’re a cynical My Bloody valentine fan, they’re a guilty pleasure. But for a lot of people who were 17 in 1999, Travis are probably their favorite band. And there’s nothing wrong with that.