Returning to mainstream country after recording a series of five well-received gospel albums, Randy Travis, one of the most commercially successful and artistically compelling of the neo-traditionalists to emerge in the mid 1980s, sounds somewhat out of time with a genre that has changed significantly in the nine years since his last proper country album. That’s hardly a bad thing, as Around the Bend frequently illustrates on such standout cuts as “Every Head Bowed” and “Love Is a Gamble,” how modern production trends can combine with traditional country styles in ways that can keep genre conventions relevant and contemporary. Strictly from the standpoint of their arrangements, Travis and his longtime producer Kyle Lehning have come up with an album that could serve as a stylistic template for current traditional-leaning country acts like Brad Paisley and Josh Turner. With so much of modern country’s tendency to strip-mine decade-old adult contemporary production values, the album immediately asserts itself as a deliberate throwback and is all the better for it.
Travis’s song selection certainly doesn’t hurt either. Although lead single “Dig Two Graves” skews a bit toward the sentimental, the track does fit with the album’s broader exploration of how one makes active choices to develop. Thematically, it makes the album’s dogged traditionalism all the more interesting a choice, considering what songs like the excellent title track, “Till I’m Dead and Gone” and a smartly-chosen cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” all say about moving forward. Even the weaker cuts, such as “You Didn’t Have a Good Time,” in which Travis’s conservatism comes across as heavy-handed, still fit within the album’s conceptual framework, which makes Around the Bend the singer’s richest work since the one-two punch of his 1986 debut, Storms of Life, and its follow-up, Always & Forever.
The problem with such an expertly-produced, meticulously-constructed record, then, is one that’s most unexpected from one of the genre’s strongest, most distinctive vocalists: Travis’s voice frequently sounds shot. While he generally avoids his baritone’s once-powerful lower register altogether, here Travis often attempts to mask the severe weathering of his middle and upper registers by using an unpleasant nasal tone to scoop up into notes that he doesn’t quite hit outright, or affecting a bit of a growl that, if more convincing than what many lesser singers try to use to convey soulfulness, doesn’t entirely work as bluesy. While not every track suffers in this regard (“Love Is a Gamble” and “Turn It Around” show that Travis’s voice has aged but still conveys the same depth of expression as in his prime), the title track and “Don’t Think Twice” are marred by noticeable pitch issues. This may not be of concern to every listener—Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts’s Gary LeVox certainly prove that there’s a sizable audience in modern country for would-be vocalists who are completely tone deaf and shrill—but truly great singers like Travis are held to a higher standard. It’s a shame, really, that what might otherwise rank among his finest albums is occasionally undone by new-found vocal limitations. Around the Bend is still worth hearing and a welcome return, but what works so brilliantly about it makes its shortcomings all the more disappointing.