Flint’s one-album wonders #9: Travis – 12 Memories (2003)
Think about Travis. A group of happy-go-lucky Scots who sing about love on top of either perky melodies or cuddleably melancholy notes. They’re a band who seem so wholesome, lovely and affable that it’s hard to actually see them as just another band – they’re some sort of a curious musical entity rather than real live people with feelings. They’re defined by what they are rather than who they are, and it’s hard to have it so otherwise when they’re such an archetypical example of a British pop/rock band that that’s their entire identity.
It took a lot of tragedy to bring Travis’ humanity and personality out into the open. Within a short period of time drummer Neil Primrose was injured near-fatally in an accident, frontman Fran Healy’s personal life crumbled into a mess and the entire world seemed to lost the plot when 9/11 happened and suddenly everything got a lot more militant in the following years. Tragedy has always been a brilliant muse for artists and this is what happened with Travis as well. The band began to write and record music and the result would be Travis’ most un-Travis-like album. The same instantly hummable pop melodies were now playing with a subduedly sad tone, Fran Healy’s soft voice grew a harrowing tone, the singles changed from love songs to tales of domestic abuse and political frustration and the almost Disney-esquely lovely aesthetic was switched to black and white footage of grown men looking miserable. 12 Memories was instantly received with a very divisive tone. Half the crowd were pushing it away because it just wasn’t Travis as they knew it – the other half found something worth listening to in it for that exact same reason.
12 Memories makes Travis, for once, sound like a band with something to say. While one of the obvious strengths of the album is that the songs do not necessarily follow the most obvious routes that would have happened elsewhere in the Travis discography, one of 12 Memories‘ greatest draws is actually the way it combines Healy & Co’s gift for an excellent singalong melody with tangible melancholy. There’s a curious kind of charm to these two worlds meeting up; “Quicksand” would be almost whimsical if it wasn’t gripping with such self-mockery and downbeating, which then in turn makes it even more appealing. Sometimes these two sides meet and clash with great results, with in particular “Somewhere Else” sounding like a good ol’ traditional Travis romp until all of a sudden it tears its flow apart with its somewhat disjointed bridges.
The most effective example of why 12 Memories works is its third single, “Love Will Come Through”. Lyrically it’s the most unabashedly positive out of the whole lot – a pick-me-up reminding that no matter how dark things can get, eventually the rain will stop and the sun will break away the clouds. And yet its delivery is downright depressed, its singalongy choruses feeling like they’ve been beaten to the ground rather than encouraging people to hum along. It sounds like the last ounce of hope of a man who has none left, words of optimism uttered by a man who knows he’s lying through his teeth and is simply trying to hold himself together. It’s still beautiful, still very melodic and fits perfectly in line with the rest of Travis’ singles catalogue, but it has a fragile heart that’s about to fall into pieces. It’s the album’s centre piece and perhaps even the highlight of the entire Travis discography.
The other two singles of the album haven’t really lasted time all that well – “Re-Offender” has a great chorus but the rest pale in comparison to it, whilst “The Beautiful Occupation” has always felt rather awkward due to its clunky political angle. But where the album lacks in the singles department, typically the one great thing in many Travis albums, it goes the opposite way in the album tracks. Here it’s the deep cuts that offer the greatest moments. “Mid-Life Krysis” and “Walking Down the Hill”, in particular: the former’s vaguely Eastern vibes on the verse flow into a shining star of a chorus that you could almost forget that it’s about, well, a mid-life crisis, while the latter is a haunting semi-electronic number that closes the album (bar the hidden track) with a worn out, fade-away sigh. “Happy to Hang Around“, with its doomsday march drums and lead-heavy drawl is probably the best example of how far away the Travis here is from their normal working routine.
Travis eventually picked themselves out of the slump and continued on their merry ways the usual way – the occasional excellent single, a lot of beige nothingness. It’s probably the best for the mental health of the band, and even I have to note that 12 Memories isn’t really a Travis album: it does obviously come from the same musical source but the feel and tone of it are so drastically different to the band’s other works that it largely exists in its own little vacuum pocket. But as much of an oddity as it is and as much as it was borne out of everyone feeling rubbish, for a moment Travis sounded like an album-oriented band worth taking properly seriously, and the loss of that after 12 Memories is sad in its own way. This much is true though: if you’re generally less than enthusiastic about Travis, 12 Memories might be your kind of Travis album.
LOVE WILL COME THROUGH