The album cover is a photograph of Travis standing in the snow wearing big coats, reminiscent of U2, but if you’re expecting an album of breast-beating stadium rock then you’ll be surprised. Fran Healy may have announced “All I Wanna Do Is Rock” on the band’s first album but “The Man Who” is a record by a band in a more reflective mood.
The opener “Writing To Reach You” shows the band at their best. Incorporating a guitar riff cheerfully stolen from Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, the song uses layers of guitars to frame Healy’s undeniably affecting voice and some beautiful vocal melodies. The next three tracks stay on similar ground, with the understated emotion of “The Fear” leading into the plaintive falsetto of “As You Are”. Strongly reminiscent of older songs like “More Than Us”, it’s one of the few times that Healy’s voice truly soars above the music although it’s spoiled slightly by a guitar solo that Paul Weller would be proud of.
Second single “Driftwood” makes excellent use of guitar effects and wailing feedback, which fade out for the stripped-down verses and return to add power to the chorus. On first listen it seems bland but repeated plays quickly embed the melody in your head; the only jarring elements are the clever-clever lyrics which don’t always work and a blatant vocal theft from Blur’s “The Universal”.
Although the opening four songs are gorgeous, the rest of the album is patchy. “The Last Laugh Of The Laughter” is so twee and mawkish that even Belle And Sebastian would have thought twice before recording it, and the haunting “Slide Show” is spoiled by repeated quoting of other band’s song titles. “Turn” and “Luv” are bland and forgettable, with terrifying echoes of ELO and other American AOR bands. “She’s So Strange” is too enthralled by its influences, lifting entire sections of Smiths songs and vocal lines whilst failing to find a unique identity of its own.
“The Man Who” is firmly mid-tempo and low key, resulting in music that, although competent, all too easily becomes aural wallpaper. It’s a shame because Fran Healy has a powerful voice that he keeps under wraps for most of the album, with no trace of the bile that made the band’s recent cover of “Gimme Some Truth” such fun to listen to. When he does lift off, as he does in the wonderful “Why Does It Always Rain On Me”, it only serves to highlight the excessive restraint of the other songs. Where older Travis recordings like “More Than Us” or “All I Wanna Do Is Rock” showcased the range and power of his voice, on too much of “The Man Who” Healy sounds as if he doesn’t really care.
It’s to Travis’ credit that they’ve resisted the temptation to make their second album identical to their debut, but “The Man Who” is a strange record for a young band to produce so early in their career. Stripped of the anthemic rock which the band are so good at, the album is highly-polished and well-played but the lack of rough edges also means that there’s a distinct lack of energy or emotion. “The Man Who” is competent, often catchy and the sign of a band maturing fast. It’s easy to like but hard to love.