Best band ever, if only for turning ". . . Baby One More Time" into the most poignant ballad of 2000; best band ever, if only for making "Killer Queen" live up to its billing. Yes, Travis is the world's most astute and least finicky cover band -- it renders the faddish timeless, the timeless immediate -- but what of the originals? First album, Good Feeling, left a moderately bad taste -- Scots doing Britpop aimed at American AOR, with less success than Simple Minds. Second album, The Man Who, offered proof that you can't have a sophomore slump when your follow-up is a thousandfold better than initial offering -- self-pity and self-deprecation (the narcissist wonders: "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?"), served up in chiming acoustipop sing-alongs that resonated in the bedroom, car or arena. Now comes the third album, The Invisible Band, which makes good on The Man Who's promises. "The love you bring won't mean a thing/Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing," Fran Healy, ahem, sings, until you can't help but join in, confident that he's preaching the gospel.
If The Man Who was drenched in raindrops of despair -- and what 27-year-old pop singer doesn't want the world to rescue, protect and, finally, love him? -- then The Invisible Band is the cool blue sky afterward. "Sing," the album's opener, provides the bridge between the hopeless and the hopeful: "Why do you have to get so low," Healy asks (his girlfriend Nora, likely, for whom the song was written -- she's too self-conscious to sing in front of her live-in), as Andy Dunlop plucks on his banjo; it's front-porch blues, if your front porch opens onto central London. Healy then sings about (or, maybe, to) the diary he's kept since 1985; before the album picks up, before it turns yesterday's frown, gee whiz, upside down, the singer-songwriter must revisit and exorcise a few old ghosts that still exist between the lines: "Dear diary, what is wrong with me? . . . Be not afraid/Help is on its way." It arrives three songs in, when Healy undoes a few clichés ("The grass is always greener on the other side") only to prove them wrong; like most of the songs that follow, it's about finding the good in what you've already got rather than craving that which you will never possess. "Life is both a major and a minor key," he exhorts, like a man willing to take a little bad with a lot of good.
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Travis gave the album its moniker because it believes a band should never stand in the way of its own songs; the material is meant to outlast any buzz-bin video or publicity shot, and The Invisible Band is one of those rare albums that sounds, feels, tastes as timeless as your favorite dream, so good you hear string sections where there are none; it's so good not even the hidden tracks sate the appetite. It's deceptively simple and perhaps even a bit naive, but that's what makes The Invisible Band so charming: Travis wears its heart on its sleeve only because it hopes you'll try on its shirt just to see how it fits. And the album's optimism isn't bound in irony or sarcasm: Healy believes in following "Pipe Dreams" ("It all boils down to the same ol' thing/Whether you win or you lose isn't going to change a single thing"); he bathes in the radiant, chiming "Afterglow" ("If you want to find peace of mind/Then you could find it any time you like"); he stares with contentment and glee at the "Flowers in the Window" ("I love you so/Let's watch the flowers grow"); and he implores the listener to "Follow the Light" ("the light being whatever you want it to be," Healy writes on travisonline.com, where the band reveals every intimate detail). The Invisible Band offers pop songs as spirituals, if only because it heals and moves at a time when most pop is bereft of honesty, depth, any hint of emotion. Travis might yet save us all.