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Holy Hell! The Man Who Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Man Who Turns 20

Twenty years on it’s time to revisit The Man Who and give it the credit it deserves as a high-watermark in Britpop.

Post-Radiohead or proto-Coldplay? Travis occupied an odd space within the Britpop sphere by the time they released their sophomore album, The Man Who, in 1999. It clearly borrowed elements of where Radiohead had been on Pablo Honey and The Bends (see: “As You Are,” among many others), yet it also hinted at the more sensitive, introspective balladry and navel-gazing of Coldplay (“Writing to Reach You,” “Driftwood,” et al.), a band whose debut wouldn’t be released until the following summer. In essence, The Man Who was the sound of Britpop abandoning the blustery rock star swagger favored by the brothers Gallagher and embracing a more sensitive, by comparison effeminate approach that ultimately proved to be just what the listening public was ready for by the turn of the millennium.

Opening track “Writing to Reach You” heralded a new generation of Britpop, gentling tearing down the (wonder)walls established by the likes of Oasis and Blur several years prior. When Fran Healy sings “What’s a wonderwall anyway?,” it’s as passive a swipe as any, yet it plants a seed of doubt within the listener: what were they singing about anyway? With The Man Who, Healy and company plainly spelled out exactly what they meant to say with songs like “Writing,” “Driftwood” and their breakthrough single, “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” And while Healy’s lyrical couplets could often be rather cringe-inducing (see: “The Fear”), they were never unrelatable on a basic human level. Just as powerful a vocalist as Thom Yorke, Healy eschewed abstruse poetics in favor of more simply-constructed couplets that left little room for interpretation, thus appealing to a broader audience.

“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” proves itself to be one of the definitive pieces of introspective songwriting dealing with depression and its labyrinthian ways of stunting those suffering. “I can’t sleep at night/ Everyone’s saying everything is alright/ Still I can’t close my eyes/ I’m seeing the tunnel at the end of all these lights,” Healy sings, nailing the crippling, insomnia-inducing effects of depression and anxiety. By the chorus, he’s landed on the irrationality of the depressive state of mind, one in which the most seemingly insignificant detail can be blown well out of proportion: “Why does it always rain on me?/ Is it because I lied when I was 17?

At first read, the lyric comes off as a throwaway line, one of the many basic couplets Healy deploys throughout the album. But looking past its seeming simplicity, one is struck by how spot-on this concern is: has something I did in the past resulted in a karmic shift from which I can’t seem to escape? Had I lived my life differently, would I have been happier? It’s these “what ifs” that tend to keep those suffering from depression and anxiety awake at night. That it manages both something lyrically profound and melodically memorable from first listen, offering an anthem for those simply trying to get through each day, makes “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” a remarkable bit of pure pop perfection, possessing both hooks and heart.

The rest of the album, while perhaps not quite to the same level, is an admirable achievement. Loaded with hooks and sing-along choruses (most notably “Turn”), the album’s 10 songs (not counting the hidden tracks) represent some of the best 1999 had to offer. It also proved a tipping point for the band who, like Radiohead before them, had released a somewhat forgettable debut heavily indebted to the Britpop/grunge sound before venturing off on their own. They would continue on with their follow-up two years later.

The Invisible Band built on and further perfected the formula of The Man Who in much the same way Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head expounded upon Parachutes. Unfortunately, it turned into the pinnacle of their creative achievements as subsequent releases would barely register as the band attempted to rejigger its sound to fit with its more commercially successful countrymen. Travis would only remain relevant on a broader scale for another couple years, eventually supplanted by Coldplay who in turn essentially signaled the end of the line of Britpop acts achieving any sort of international recognition beyond the realm of college dorm rooms and music critics always on the lookout for “the next _____.” It was an ill-advised move that essentially relegated the band to the dustbin of history, an evolutionary blip overshadowed by its predecessors and progeny. A midwife of sorts that helped give us Coldplay while also providing a more humanistic element for those smarting from the increasingly mechanistic, electronic-leaning abstractions of Radiohead. Twenty years on, however, it’s time to revisit The Man Who and give it the credit it deserves as a high-watermark in Britpop.

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