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”).
“It’s kind of grisly when you think about it,” Morrison says of “People Die.” “But I wanted to explore some of the things that were on my mind the last couple of years, the way Creedence Clearwater Revival or The Band would have done it.” And though Travistan is far from either of those groups in sound, it’s clear that they’ve both influenced his approach to songwriting. “This period reminds me a lot of what was going on in the late 1960s, where there was a lot of anger and mistrust and choosing sides about things. My favorite artists from that period were these sorts of oddballs who separated themselves out from that dialogue and dealt with the issues at hand in more oblique ways.”
The four-part, show-tunish series “Get me off this coin” does just that. Morrison speaks for Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR in separate ditties inspired by Schoolhouse Rock, voicing the disappointment of each one with the current state of our union. Some fans heard “Get Me Off This Coin C,” about FDR, as a defense of the Iraq war (“They said there was no risk to us/but risk comes to those who will wait/6 million could have been 4 or 2/it’s those thoughts I hate”). Morrison rejects the charge. “It’s just what I think he would be thinking, like don’t make the mistake we made, don’t wait around,” he says. “And that went over like a lead balloon” with fans, he says.
“I was reading constantly about history after 9/11,” he continues, “and I wanted to write songs that evoked the feeling of relief I had from investigating history–seeing the patterns, cycles, the way things really do get better over time. But I just don’t think that people want to be exploring things intellectually right now. People really want to be told what to think. There’s this current desire for an ideological fixed-price menu, where if someone thinks one thing, you can assume everything else is in line.” There doesn’t seem to be anything that bothers Morrison more. In “Che Guevara Poster,” he chides activist college kids for lionizing the Cuban revolutionary in their dorm rooms–“you know the one: Black on Red/Christ in a beret over every group house bed”–before illustrating his larger point through the story of his granddad, a Norwegian immigrant and bona fide radical who “worked for the union/when being union got you dead,” but who also “didn’t like black folks.”
Morrison laughs when I tell him that after giving Travistan a few listens, I’d decided he must be a libertarian. “I think when you pick up on the libertarian thing you are just picking up on the vibe of someone in a lake house on Lake Winnipesaukee,” he says. He assures me that he’s voting for Kerry, which is a relief, since I feared I’d fallen hard for a record by a Michael Badnarik supporter.”I vote Democratic 99.9 percent of the time,” he explains, “but I can’t attach my artistic reputation to the Democratic Party [by getting involved with the election]. I feel like then I’d have to relinquish my skepticism, and one of the great tools in my toolbox is skepticism.” Travistan may not rally the kids to vote against Bush, but it will keep them thinking and asking questions–and that’s crucial, no matter who wins this election.