On The Nation‘s website in recent months, I’ve noted a few musicians, CDs and music-related events that were of potential interest to Nation readers because of their antiwar and anti-Bush sentiments. Travis Morrison, whose intensely political album Travistan (Barsuk) came out last month, doesn’t fit that bill. Morrison will encourage you to vote on November 2, to e-mail your senator or Congress member, to talk politics with your friends all you want. But he wouldn’t dream of telling you whom to vote for, and he won’t be doing any last-minute Concerts for Kerry.
Travistan is the solo debut for the 31-year-old Morrison, who previously fronted the beloved DC art rock act The Dismemberment Plan. Some critics haven’t known what to make of Travistan–a strange album that departs far from Morrison’s past work and, at a loaded political moment, raises questions about history, about ethics, about fear and about how we live our everyday lives. “I think in large part a lot of it was a reaction to what was going on after 9/11,” says Morrison. “That, and a desire to hear a record that I didn’t think anyone was making.”
For sure, we’re swimming in a sea of “political pop,” at the moment–even Eminem has come out with an anti-Bush track.That’s obviously not a bad thing; anything and everything to encourage a turn against Bush is necessary right now. But the tide of Democratic Party spirit should not eclipse interrogation and experimentation of the sort that Morrison’s undertaken on Travistan.
Instead of the usual retinue of songs about heartbreak, lust and evil ex-girlfriends we could expect from a musician of Morrison’s profile (young, funny, sensitive, cute), he’s given us a record that channels past Presidents, explores the banality of death and discusses the apathy that comes with being a privileged white male. (In “Born in ’72,” when Morrison’s female friend is passed over for a raise, he sings, “Hey, what could I say?/Hey–what did I do?/when I’m always paid more even if less skilled?”) “My Two Front Teeth, Parts 2 and 3,” where Morrison gets his teeth kicked in on the streets of DC, works as an allegorical retelling of 9/11. In “The Word Cop,” Morrison cycles through choice vocabulary words–morality, decency, Christianity, reality–to rage at those who employ them hypocritically. (You decide whom he’s talking about.)
Musically, Travistan is practically a dance record. Hip-hop, which has always influenced Morrison’s songwriting, triumphs here–guitars fall to the back while beats, keyboards and bass lines rise. Andwhen Morrison departs from his whimsical speak-singing, he occasionally even kinda raps. (It’s amusing, not embarrassing, and mesmerizingly bizarre; click here to check out his acoustic cover of Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy?”)
Many of the songs on Travistan were written after 9/11 in the isolation of a cabin in the wintry environs of New Hampshire, where Morrison says he was drawn to, and influenced by, “timeless, quieter music.” The first song he wrote was “People Die,” a meditation on the inevitability of the death of those close to us; the verses follow a lazy up/down scale (“How’s my mom?/pretty bad/You asked and now I bet you wish you never had”) and explode into a bitter chorus about aging (“Some day we’ll be old and we’ll do funerals like every single day”).