Album Review: Randy Travis – Around the Bend
After more than twenty years in the business, should it surprise anyone that Randy Travis knows how to make a country album?
Testament to his near-legendary status is the fact that, even in the iTunes age, Travis still knows how to sequence an album. Thus, he begins Around the Bend, his first country project in nine years, with the title track, which opens by playing on country fans’ anticipation about what lies ahead, and ends it with “‘Til I’m Dead and Gone,” which ought to answer any questions about how long Travis plans to stay in the country game.
Of course, Randy Travis is returning to a genre that’s far different than the one he left in 1999. Travis’s themes, if not his sound, have changed as well, and in discerning Travis’s motivations it’s difficult to disentangle current commercial realities from habits inculcated during Travis’s prolonged gospel foray. Around the Bend lacks the starkness that characterized Travis standards like “I Told You So” and “Reasons I Cheat.” There’s not much heartbreak on this album, and that which exists is of the salvific nature, such as the subject of “From Your Knees,” who manages to wring a religious conversion out of “empty closets and empty drawers, and a tear-stained note on the kitchen floor,” and “Turn it Around,” which finds Travis missing his woman but resolving to win her back rather than wallowing in her leaving. The best of these songs is “You Didn’t Have a Good Time,” in which Travis invokes some of the moral authority that he earned in five consecutive gospel albums to call upon a drunken reveler to “take a good hard look in the mirror and drink that image down / I’m the truth that you can’t run from, I’m the conscience you can’t drown.”
Unfortunately, Travis’s two radio releases aren’t representative of the quality nor the tone of the remainder of the album. “Faith in You” is lyrically clumsy and “Dig Two Graves,” while a beautiful ode to marital love, is much more sentimental than downright frivolous but delightfully country songs like “Everything That I Own (Has Got a Dent)” and “Every Head Bowed,” a ditty about the trouble that a church boy can get into when his elders aren’t looking.
Travis hasn’t quite reached the age when some legends begin to lose the voices that made them famous, but some fans may still be unhappy with his vocal performances on Around the Bend. It’s hard to tell whether Travis’s voice has deteriorated or he has simply chosen to approach his studio performances with a more natural, road-worn philosophy. Either way, the notes don’t ring with the same clarity that they did on Travis’s hit singles, and he relies heavily, almost to the point of overuse, on rough-hewn, wispy nasal growls (think the way he bends “memmmmmories” in “Diggin’ Up Bones”). Nonetheless, the result is not entirely unpleasant and decidedly more signature than many of Travis’s hit releases. It’s a voice worth welcoming back.
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