Travis’ second album, The Man Who (Independiente Ltd.-Epic), is dedicated to the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (and “Shirley,” whoever that may be). It’s a fitting reference. Released in an America rife with gleaming teen poppers and rockers influenced by the World Wrestling Federation, The Man Who is a bit like the monolith depicted in Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey . It is an alien presence; dark, sleek and worthy of attention.
The Man Who , a title inspired by Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat , is one of those crisp little packages of seductive sonic gloom that pasty-faced boys from the United Kingdom–in this case, four former art-schoolers from Scotland–inevitably do better than their Yank counterparts.
And Travis came to the U.S. already having proven that its misery attracts company. The Man Who has sold two million copies in Britain.
Travis takes a modern approach to melancholy. The underlying message of The Man Who is that suffering is just part of the daily deal; as dependable and unremarkable as the delivery of the morning papers. “So I’m sorry that you turned to driftwood/ But you’ve been drifting for a long, long time,” Travis’ singer and songwriter Fran Healy sings on “Driftwood.” “Everywhere there’s trouble/ Nowhere’s safe to go.”
Travis pairs its despair with music that draws sleekly from continental cabaret and film-music sources. The aeronautical precision of the instrumentals–the acoustic and electric guitar sounds that dominate this album are mixed to crystal clarity–paired with Mr. Healy’s falsetto-prone voice give Travis’ music a digital-age chilliness. Only on “The Blue Flashing Light,” the first of three “hidden” bonus tracks found on the U.S. release of The Man Who , does Travis shed that detachment for white-hot anger.
There are moments–”Driftwood” is one of them–when Mr. Healy seems to be channeling Thom Yorke, and Travis sounds a lot like those masters of late-90′s maladjustment, Radiohead (a similarity underscored by the participation of Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich on a number of tracks on this album).
But there’s a definite difference. Radiohead’s sound is, at heart, pure rock-star exotica. It creeps, it explores spaced-out vistas, it distorts, it re-examines machinery.
Travis’ music, on the other hand, is more jealously song-oriented than that of Radiohead’s Oxford experimentalists. Whether it’s the rousing earnestness of “Turn” or the romantic dislocation of “Luv,” Travis’ music manages the rare virtue of deceptively plain pop-song focus.
On the first track of the album, “Writing to Reach You,” a young man seems stuck in a Groundhog Day -like rut. “Every day I wake up and it’s Sunday/ Whatever’s in my eye won’t go away/ The radio is playing all the usual/ And what’s a wonderwall anyway?” sings Mr. Healy, sounding tired even of that widely beloved English mainstay Oasis. (Mr. Healy can’t be too serious; the brothers Gallagher are given a shout in the “We love you” section of the credits.)
Without much further lyrical detail, Mr. Healy and Travis present a narcotic, guitar-toned image of a man trapped in the thick cotton wool of emotional malaise. The narrator of the song is trying to connect with someone important to him, but it’s just not happening. “Only want to teach you/ About you/ But that’s not you,” Mr. Healy sings.
The sun never quite makes it through the clouds on The Man Who . On “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?”, the seventh track on the album, Mr. Healy sings: “I can’t sleep tonight/ Everybody saying everything’s all right/ Still I can’t close my eyes/ I’m seeing a tunnel at the end of all these lights.” You want to believe him. But then you have to wonder whether the Travis boys will still feel like beautiful losers now that it’s raining royalty checks.