Back in 1999, at the end of Travis‘ breakthrough album The Man Who, is a curious bonus track. Hidden amongst such charmingly self-deprecating, puppy-dog-eyed songs like “Writing to Reach You”, “Driftwood”, “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?”, and “Luv”, is a track that stops you dead in your tracks. Apparently inspired by singer/guitarist/songwriter Fran Healy’s own family history, it was a harrowing story of domestic abuse, told from a seemingly autobiographical point of view, by a son whose despair, confusion, and loneliness reached a breaking point. The Man Who was already a very promising record, but the presence of that song, called “Blue Flashing Light”, hinted at some great potential in this Glasgow band. All you had to do was listen to the album, and then the stupendous 2000 single “Coming Around”, and you’d be convinced that it would only be a matter of time before the band became a worldwide smash.
Then came 2001’s The Invisible Band, which abandoned Healy’s darker themes, in favor of lovey-dovey, syrupy, Paul McCartney-style acoustic pop. It still wasn’t bad, but songs like “Sing” and “Dear Diary” sounded like a talented band coasting. The future for Travis still looked bright, that is, until drummer Neil Primrose sustained a devastating spinal injury while vacationing in the summer of 2002. It was feared he would never walk again, and the band took an indefinite break from touring and recording. Primrose eventually recovered, and after six months, the band was ready to start anew.
However, the newly-married Healy was seeing the world in a different light. Since The Invisible Band was released, there was the September 11th tragedy, the unending War on Terrorism, and the war in Iraq, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair became a despised figure among young Britons, riding George W. Bush’s coattails, reducing himself to little more than a sniveling yes man in the eyes of many people. Healy looked at the world around him and realized that sometimes life really sucks, and was inspired to take Travis into a new, more grown-up direction. Heaven help us.
12 Memories is definitely a more mature album. That is, mature in a stiff, drab, painfully boring, Sting kind of way. All you have to do is compare album covers to notice the change. The Invisible Band has a photo of the group in a lush, green, sunlit forest, perfectly encapsulating the light, flowery music the album contains. The new album, though, looks awful on the surface, with four artsy photographs by Anton Corbijn. It looks bleak, unhappy, and altogether unappealing, and it’s sad to say that goes for a fair chunk of the music as well.
It’s not that all of it is awful. Some of it, in fact, is pretty good, but the one quality that made Travis so darn likeable, their self-effacing appeal, is now nonexistent. Even worse, there are times when the band sounds like they’re completely lacking in passion. Still, the band occasionally shows us what their capable of, the best example being the dark “Re-Offender”. Over layers of strings and a laid back guitar riff by Andy Dunlop that coaxes you in, sounding like a pretty love song, Healy broaches the subject of domestic violence again, spoken from a battered wife’s point of view: “Everybody thinks you’re well/ Everybody thinks I’m ill… You say your sorry’s/ And you do it again.” The song is powerful and emotional, a real step forward for the band.
“Take me away, take me away,” sings Healy on the pretty, Beatles-esque “Quicksand”, encapsulating his mood on the entire album. The sweeping “The Beautiful Occupation” has Healy at his most cynical, as he sings about how easy it is for most people to ignore problems abroad: “Half a million civilians gonna die today/ But look the wrong way then… Put it in the background/ Stick it in the back.” “Somewhere Else” is especially strong, with Healy at his most perceptive (“We come in, knowing everything/ But don’t say a word until they teach it away/ Words are found too close to the edge that we don’t dare say”), while the shimmering “Love Will Come Through” has a lilting melody and a buoyant 6/8 beat, closely resembling Badly Drawn Boy’s folk-tinged pop.
The rest of 12 Memories, unfortunately, is either boring, forgettable, or just plain unbearable. The angry open letter to Tony Blair “Peace the Fuck Out” has the right idea (“You have a brain, so use it”), but the complete lack of an interesting melody bogs it down. “How Many Hearts”, “Happy to Hang Around”, and the excruciating “Mid-Life Krysis” sound like the band is on autopilot, “Paperclips” is too miserable and dull to make you want to hear it more than once, while “Walking Down the Hill” has Healy singing in a disaffected mumble that somehow sounds more bored than those people unfortunate enough to be listening to his song.
There’s nothing worse than when a young band tries much too hard to be taken seriously, and while it’s admirable that Travis tried to take a big step forward, they come off sounding much too monotonous in the process. They’re a much better band than what’s on 12 Memories, and hearing this maudlin, pretentious, most disappointing album will make you yearn for the good old days when all they wanted to do was rock. At one point, Healy sings, “It’s just the sound of one more rock star bleeding.” You can say that again.