As a lyricist, Trey Anastasio has always been plagued with a case of arrested development, content with bromides straight out of the pop-psychology handbook, or else the occasional song cycle about imaginary worlds drawn in broad, crayon-like strokes. Traveler marks no departure from this pattern, but its music moves in a distinctly chamber-pop direction under the guidance of producer Peter Katis, noted for his work with Jukebox the Ghost, the National, Interpol, et al. Here, Anastasio forgoes the extended solo in favor of expansive soundscapes while keeping seven out of 10 songs under four minutes. The result isn't exactly Phishy, but it's a merry mishmash, a frothy frolic best appreciated as a sort of senior-spring record. Certain songs achieve liftoff while others merely float. Don't follow along with the lyrics—nothing but horse feathers there. More worthwhile are the deep production work, the consistently interesting percussion, and the overall sunniness that attests a robust collection of Beach Boys LPs.
When things work, they really work: On "Corona," cascading harmonies ride on the twitchy groove of Anastasio's guitar, while "Pigtail" offers beautiful, upbeat nonsense about a girl whose hair keeps getting besmirched by ink. The latter also includes one of the album's too-rare guitar solos. (In an Olympian feat of self-restraint, Anastasio lets loose his velveted distortion on only two or three tracks.) "Scabbard," the album's first single, features a catchy, recurring time-signature switch and smacks of golden-era Yes, with a pleasantly grand climax, even if one could do without a xylophone doubling the guitar figure.
Elsewhere, things get stickier: "Let Me Lie" masquerades as an anthem about freedom, but really it's just a child's petulance glorified. "Gonna take my bike out/Gonna take my bike/Gonna ride it slowly/Gonna ride just how I like," Anastasio declares, a fitting sing-along for fixie riders everywhere, but an inanity as rock lyrics go. Likewise, it's best to hibernate through "Frost" and the "progressive" noise experiments that dominate the second half of "The Land of Nod." On "Clint Eastwood," the album's only cover, Trey's voice simply can't match—or reinterpret in any useful way—the dark insouciance of the Gorillaz original. The track would be a throwaway if not for Jennifer Hartswick, who puts her trumpet aside to split the difference between Beyoncé and Joss Stone on the hip-hop middle passage. "Architect," the one religio-mystical song, is a very pretty anthem that begins with some off-kilter electronic percussion (think Radiohead without the ominous overtones) before a warmhearted chorus and some chin stroking about the Almighty: "There might be more to this than we all know." It's an infectious song, delightfully unchallenging on any level. We "don't need to intervene/Some things are better off unseen," Trey reassures us, a pronouncement that lets the listener off the hook for everything from factory farming to genocide in Darfur.
Traveler is Anastasio's ninth solo studio album, but he still hears "the freeway callin'" on the title track, and Tom Marshall, Phish's ghost lyricist, steps in whenever Anastasio can't find his thesaurus. The meticulous and experimental arrangements—a theremin or two excepted—mark real progress for the guitarist. But Anastasio is still the author of his own limitations: When he avows on "Architect" that "it'll all come out in the wash," you get the feeling that his mom might still be doing the laundry.