When I interviewed Fran Healy of Travis back in 2010, he referred to the band’s fourth album, 12 Memories, as a “complete left turn for us”. When the album was released in autumn 2003, my roommate and close friend described it as neither good nor bad, but just “there”. Reviews were not savage but also weren’t as glowing as the ones that trumpeted their first three releases, with The Man Who garnering the most acclaim as the perfect Glaswegian echo of Britpop. The highest praise came from Elton John, of all people, who compared it to Revolver.
These disparate assessments of the same album hung in the back of my mind for some time, making me wonder if 12 Memories wasn’t so much an unwanted stepchild of the Travis family as perhaps just a shy, misunderstood cousin looking for some friends. At any rate, 12 Memories is finding new life on vinyl in 2021. Babies who were born around the time of the album’s release are now free to vote and enlist in combat, which means that now is as good a time as any to revisit 12 Memories and hear how it fits with Travis’ history and 21st-century pop as we know it so far.
Things were a-changing for Travis around this time. Fran Healy was struggling with depression, and drummer Neil Primrose had injured himself badly during a swimming accident the summer before sessions began. Outside the band’s inner circle, America’s War on Terror took an odd turn with the invasion of Iraq, which Tony Blair fully supported while Jack McConnell told his Labour colleagues to “toe the line” on the issue. It’s no wonder the band didn’t feel like writing another “Sing” at this time. 12 Memories bears the weight of all these pressures from the very first note, but it never buckles.
The album’s first three songs deal with depression, the occupation of Iraq, and domestic violence. Musically speaking, “Quicksand” is not the strongest candidate to get the album started. The melody of the verses sounds like Healy was struggling through writer’s block in real-time: “Take me away, take me away / You said that you were gonna stay.” The chorus is, fortunately, more convincing, bringing voices and instruments to a unison figure. Primrose taps a cowbell on each beat, and guitarist Andy Dunlop scrapes his pick over his guitar strings, all while Healy depicts someone’s submerging dread: “Every day, sinking into quicksand / Follow me down the drain / Every day, drinking in the same bar / Drowning my sorrows away.”
“The Beautiful Occupation” has a bright, jangly sound driving it, even though it’s in a minor key and makes casual mention of the “half a million civilians” that are “gonna die today”. “You don’t need an invitation / To drop in upon a nation”, goes the chorus, in case you ever wondered where they stood on the issue. “Re-Offender” is a disturbingly gentle number, considering that it’s told from the view of someone being repeatedly abused. “You say your sorry’s / And then you do it again / You do it again” goes the soft refrain, somewhat reminiscent of the Smiths’ “Sweet & Tender Hooligan” (“And he swore that he’ll never, never do it again / And of course he won’t, oh, not until the next time”).
That’s an awful lot of reality to unpack from the album’s first ten minutes, which might explain why things start to feel a little more relaxed (comparatively speaking) with the pleasantly flippant “Peace the Fuck Out” and the woozy waltz of “How Many Hearts”. Unlike the 2003 CD pressing, this rerelease doesn’t censor that naughty, four-lettered word on the back of the package. Another difference is that “Some Sad Song” is no longer a hidden track since you can’t really do such a thing on vinyl in any practical way. Using just piano and Healy’s voice, the album closes with a sob as the narrator gives a gloomy forecast for anyone interested in Catholic school education: “In the church, one day you’ll get hurt.”
The one other song from 12 Memories that could match the darkness of “Some Sad Song” would have to be the painfully vulnerable “Paperclips”. Here, the guitars are so naked and unaffected it’s easy to believe Healy and Dunlop probably didn’t work out a strumming pattern before hitting the record button. “I don’t want to be like you anymore / I don’t want to see your face at my door / And I’ll never leave like you, that’s for sure / I don’t want to be like you anymore, anymore, anymore.” Try putting a positive spin on that if you’re the “you” in this song.
Fran Healy has been candid in interviews over the years about how the 12 songs in 12 Memories all point to his then-current state of depression. So even if a song appears peppy and upbeat on the outside, be aware it carries some extra turn-of-the-century baggage inside. There’s even a song named “Mid-Life Krysis”! — as if misspelling that cursed word would shield Healy from jokes about splurging on sports cars. This isn’t the ramshackle despair that was Big Star’s third album, just four Scottish men seeking therapy by way of pop music. It certainly wasn’t the most tuneful album they ever made — plenty of reviews decried Travis’ lack of pop hooks this time around.
But music doesn’t have to be catchy to make you feel something below the surface. For all we know, catchiness could be a hurdle for some listeners who want to consider the music’s other virtues. True, you may not find yourself humming “Walking Down the Hill” much after spinning 12 Memories a few times, but a bipolar lyric like “We’ve got it all, we’ve got it made / I don’t know how I got here / But I’m holding on for the crash” might resonate with you more.