Listen to this track by Scottish post-Britpop favourites Travis. It’s “Driftwood”, a top twenty UK single as taken from their 1999 album The Man Who, their second. The song was released in May of that year, the second single from the album following the Oasis-like “Writing To Reach You”.
Travis represented something of a third wave of British guitar pop in the 1990s, coming in after the Britpop era had concluded, and long after The Stone Roses and their contemporaries revitalized the guitar for pop music in Britain at the beginning of the decade and out of the ashes of the late 1980s. At the time Travis were looked upon as being somewhat lightweight when compared to the zeitgeist precision of Blur, the kitchen sink drama of Pulp, or the ironic glam of Suede. But, to me those are not apples to apples comparisons in any case.
What this song provided was something of a relief from the artifice of Britpop (as good as that artifice was, to be clear). It navigated different waters, and more frightening ones in some respects, just because it contrasted so starkly against the distance and irony for which Britpop is known. No, Travis went the other way; they were earnest. That’s a tough row to hoe, especially when it comes to the British music press.
Really, I think that’s what was at the center of the critical backlash against a lot of late ’90s British guitar pop, with the understanding that some bands pulled it off to a greater degree than some others. So, what’s so earnest about this song, and what is it really about anyway?
Existential angst seems to be the main theme in this song, and the belief that life is beyond our control. With the seemingly random changes that life can throw at us, that feeling that we’re being carried along by circumstance, being bound, ground, and broken up is a pretty universal theme. It’s certainly a weighty one for a pop song. But, I think there’s hopefulness in the lines “I’m sorry that you’ve turned to driftwood”, indicating that this need not be everyone’s fate, that if everything is open and nothing is set in stone, then perhaps we can use that openess as leverage instead of resigning ourselves to it making our lives meaningless. And that’s another indicator of their post-Britpop approach; this is a song with a message.
This more earnest approach to writing songs is perhaps a result of an early, pre-recording contract meeting with American sound engineer and producer Niko Bolas, a who called head writer Fran Healy out for not being honest in his lyric writing. When it came to Bolas’ point of view in this respect, I suppose that’s what happens when you work with Neil Young.
“He told us we were shit, took us in the studio for four days, and taught us how to play properly, like a band. He was ballsy, rude, and New York pushy. He didn’t believe my lyrics and told me to write what I believed in and not tell lies. He was Mary Poppins, he sorted us out.” (read more)
Personally, I think all of this resulted in songwriting that was less British, and more American in its approach; believing in lyrics, instead of the lyrics merely playing a part in the overall sound of a song. And as such, a new era for guitar pop from British bands was born as the era of Britpop finally faded, including another band who emerged in the wake of Travis’ The Man Who, also known for their more emotional and earnest outpourings; Coldplay.
The results of this overall trend are not to everyone’s tastes since it very often veers into the artistic ditch of self-indulgence and maudlin sentiment. And yet, that universality found in this particular song, along with it being very tuneful and texturally varied (that crunchy-echo of guitar against Healy’s choirboy voice, for instance), is compelling enough to make it best of its class.
Where earnest songwriting is concerned in this case, what it really comes down to is this. If Fran Healy believed what he was singing, then fine. But, the value to be found in that is whether or not we as listeners can see his point. That should be the sniff test for any songwriter taking this approach to songwriting. In the end, the song has to ultimately be about the listener, not the writer.
Since this tune, Travis have continued putting out records including their most recent one Where You Stand, and going on tour. Amazingly, they’ve been together for 24 years! You can find out more about their more recent movements by investigating travisonline.com
You can also catch up to Fran Healy and his parallel solo career at franhealy.com