In some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s been four years since Graham Coxon effectively left Blur, the band that made him famous, and perhaps that’s why it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Love Travels at Illegal Speeds is nothing more than a side project. But shake it we must, because Coxon, despite the pleadings of former bandmates Damon Albarn and Alex James, seems to have no interest in a reunion, going so far as to call Blur “a boyish thing” that he’s long outgrown.
To tell you the truth, things could be much worse. Although nobody will ever call a fairly mindless break-up record from a thirty-seven-year-old guitarist “essential,” it’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (which was released in the U.K. in March). Packed with more solo work than a thirteen-year-old boy’s bedroom, the album provides dose after dose of the kind of infectious power pop that’s both slightly embarrassing and highly enjoyable to listen to. There’s a vanity quotient here, of course — how could there not be, really? — but Coxon, if nothing else, always lets his tunes speak for themselves, and fortunately the conversation never lags on Love Travels at Illegal Speeds. Democrazy, thankfully, this is not.
Opener and first single “Standing on My Own Again” sets the tone for the album both musically and thematically with its chugging, distorted guitars and I’m-moving-on lyrics (“Standing on the shore watching our ship go down/ sinking in the sand and I can’t turn ’round”). The riffs just keep on coming with “I Can’t Look at Your Skin” and “Don’t Let Your Man Know,” both of which provide ample opportunities to dust off the old air guitar. “Just a State of Mind” and “Don’t Believe Anything I Say” wouldn’t be out of place on a Blur album as the acoustic counterpoints, and the nifty “You and I” is the closest thing we have here to “Freakin’ Out,” the standout from Coxon’s previous solo record (2004’s Happiness in Magazines.)
Love Travels is, in many ways, frustratingly adolescent record-the lyrics here are all of the high school yearbook variety-but the fact that there are such ample portions of Coxon’s patent-pending guitar sound that it’s easy to look past this. It’s a true credit to his songwriting abilities that the two best songs here are called “Gimme Some Love” (which must share its title with at least two dozen truly awful songs) and “I Don’t Want to Go Out” (since when is it rock-and-roll to stay in?).
The biggest slip-up here is the baffling “Flights in the Sea (Lovely Rain).” With its cheesy sprinklings of piano and flute, it practically begs to be removed from your iTunes library. There’s also the dopey “What’s He Got?,” on which Coxon paints himself as something of a dandy while wondering why the object of his affection prefers one of his rivals, finally realizing, “Guess he’s just better-looking than me.” Um, yeah.
Love Travels at Illegal Speeds is by far Coxon’s best solo album, and if his sensibilities remain where they’re at now, it’s conceivable that he’ll never be able to top it. Graham Coxon was Blur, let’s not forget, and it’s difficult not to at least entertain the idea that writing a simple break-up record with such painful lyrics isn’t a waste of his talents. Truly great records, after all, are born out of tension, and tension has a funny way of disappearing when you’re the one playing all the instruments. It’s unfair, though, to hold Coxon’s legendary past against him, and if the biggest thing we have to complain about here is that the songs are too damn catchy, well, we’ll survive.