Graham Coxon's new album makes more sense if you discard the fanzine hyperbole.
During his tenure with Blur, received wisdom pegged the bespectacled guitarist as the band's oddball wunderkind, his fretboard noodling twisting their songs from the inside out and raising the overall standard of the finished product. When Blur jacked in their "Kinks gone mad in the music hall" sound in favour of a more American-style indie lo-fi approach on their fifth and sixth albums, Coxon's experimental bent reached freakout levels - feedback and fuzz caked most of the songs on _13_ - and his solo albums started to eschew any hint of self-editing altogether. When news of his departure surfaced, the smart money was on Coxon doing a Sonic Youth by way of Ray Davies, while Blur would turn to pop's straight and narrow.
But somewhere between telling Damon Albarn to get stuffed and releasing Happiness In Magazines, Coxon started tooling down the noise experiments and dialling up his pop sensibilities. He renewed his studio relationship with Stephen Street and produced perhaps the most uncomplicated album of his entire career. Magazines was as direct a slab of guitar-pop as you were likely to get and it contained practically none of the guitar shenanigans that had characterized his earlier work.
Two years and a second Britpop wave later, and Coxon has returned with Love Travels At Illegal Speeds, an album which, if anything, is even more straightforward than its predecessor. There's no feedback on here, no fuzzboxes, no power-drilling or crust-covered effects; just sweet riffs alternating between spikey and jangly, songs that ride hooks as catchy as all get out, and a tight rhythm section backing up the whole affair. Lyrically, the songs are informed by what you'd expect from a cynical romantic on the nature of the whole boy-girl-relationship-thing.
If this sounds a bit paint-by-numbers, well then yes, there is an element of that. You can tick off the influences even if it feels churlish to do so – the giant-sized Pete Townsend strumming, the Ray Davies and Sex Pistols axe-bashing and so on. These have always been part of Coxon's sound – especially when he was with Blur, who had the tendency to cannibalise pretty much any sound they took a shine to.
What saves the album is its upbeat demeanour (at least musically) and its near-addictive riffs. It's true that guitar-pop is all this is, but it's still bloody good stuff. So much so, that describing it song by song would be pretty redundant; for example, the watery-effect on the solo in 'Don’t Tell Your Man Know' isn't going to surprise anyone, but then, if you pause to analyse this music you're missing the point.
Perhaps the reason that Love Travels At Illegal Speeds feels a little lightweight is due to Coxon’s history as Britpop's guitar crazyman. The sonic calling cards this guy was hailed as a guitar god for have been absent from his work ever since his solo projects became his full-time gig. I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision he made, knowing that his past solo efforts wouldn’t be enough to sustain a viable career in music sans Blur, or if he just got bored with it, but Love Travels At Illegal Speeds sounds like more like a template for a better album that Coxon still has rattling around inside his head.
At this point it's hard to say if Coxon feels he's found his niche, or if Love Travels At Illegal Speeds is just another step on the road in his solo progression. In the meantime, it's nice to see he’s lightened up and he's kicked out some great pretty rocking tunes to liven up the discos this spring.
7Nick Cowen's Score