First, an apology: This review was intended to be the climax of my "A Journey Through Texas" series, which sadly fell by the wayside a bit whilst I was otherwise engaged in March and April. As a result, it lacks the context I had hoped it would have. I have, though, opted to retain the track-by-track style of the entries I made for Southside and Mother's Heaven - and I still intend to complete posts for all the other albums...
The album kicks of with the title track and lead single. In many respects it is reminiscent of the Texas of Southside, complete with twangy country guitars, albeit with more melody and polish. I must confess that I wasn't overly sure of it to start (I felt the chorus sounded like it could have been done by The Sugababes!) but it has definitely grown on me over the weeks and months.
The next track - Dry Your Eyes - also captures a conversation, this time between friends having a heart to heart in emotionally raw circumstances. It's a beautiful number, with a simple melody, pared down acoustic sound and clear narrative.
Like many of the tracks on the album, it's a slight song; of the twelve tracks, half are under 3 minutes long, and the longest is 3 minutes 43 seconds. Like the songwriters of the sixties (whose influence can be heard at times), the band don't go in for over-long instrumentals or extended repeated choruses.
If This Isn't Real, returns to the theme of The Conversation - and the recurring theme of the album - the second guessing of a partner's insecurities. A simple (that word again) drum-based accompaniment, layered with keyboards and guitars is the backing for Sharleen Spiteri's rich and soulful vocal.
The next track (Detroit City) moves the tempo up again - it's the most rocky track on the album and Spiteri's voice adapts accordingly. It's rollickingly good fun, and a real foot stomper; come the tour in November, it'll be a real crowd pleaser.
I Will Always, by contrast, put me in mind of the Everly Brothers number - a low key, melodic paean to eternal love. Again, Spiteri's chameleon like voice adapts - dropping a register for a sultry, harmonic vocal.
Talk About Love reminds me of the Texas of White on Blond or The Hush - but with a Southside style and sound with heavy guitars and a heavy beat. Texas' sound may change but on every album there are examples of the DNA of the band shining through. There is something about the frantic pace of the song which gets under the skin of subject of much of the album: the frustration of being a relationship with someone incapable of expressing their feelings.
The Texas DNA is obvious again on Hid From The Light which feels - to me at least - a bit like a reworking of Halo. But whilst in Halo we really do adore the object of our affection - here all who love her will despair. It's destined to become a fan favourite!
Be True has a sixties sound reminiscent in parts of the Supremes. So much so, it could easily have been a track on Spiteri's solo album, Melody, which was heavily influenced by Motown. Always Forever (Maybe I) moves the tempo down again with a pared back, dream-like vocal against a minimal backdrop.
Spiteri appears to channel to the voice of The Pretender's Chrissie Hynde on Hearts Are Made To Stray - and indeed the song itself reminds be I'll Stand By You.
At the gigs that launched the album, the band did a version of River Deep, Mountain High (which Spiteri had deployed to great effect on her solo tour in 2009). Big World is, in part, reminiscent of another Tina Turner hit, Proud Mary with more than a knowing wink in that direction. It's an upbeat number about doing what's right for yourself when you can't get through to your partner.
The album rounds off with I Need Time - a torch song with a stripped back track, country guitars and bluesy vocals. It's a slight downbeat ending to the album, which is in keeping I think with the subject matter. It's also an understated ending, encouraging you back to listen again rather than sending you off on your way humming the last track!
The Conversation is an album that's unlike any other Texas album: more melodic than Southside, more upbeat than Mothers Heaven and Ricks Road, more guitar-led than White on Blond and The Hush, more authentic than Careful What You Wish For and more down to earth than The Red Book. The consistent factor - as ever - is Spiteri's voice and lyrics.
Although they've never been afraid to experiment with differing musical directions, sometimes this has led to contrivances - the most obvious example being 2003's Careful What You Wish For. The Conversation marks another change of direction - but this feels more like a band doing what it wants, rather than trying to be cool or populist. Texas are back - but on their terms.
I'd be foolish to pretend the album was perfect. Indeed, I have to confess to being disappointed that there isn't more breadth of substance to the tracks, many of which tackle the same subject in only slightly differing fashion. As with all of Spiteri's work, it's clearly highly personal and appears to be the product of a frustrating relationship.
It's not an album that's going to set the critics world on fire. It's not going to bring a new generation of fans to the band in the way that White on Blond did. But it's an accomplished album from the band content to follow their own path. It's an album that showcases Spiteri's voice and resists the over-production of previous albums, and, from a fan's point of view, it's a very welcome return after an extended hiatus.