Review Summary: An awkward transitional phase, Travelogue remains a mere curious (but crucial) footnote in the bands history.
‘Travelogue’ is a conflicted album. It’s conflicted in the sense that it represents a rift between its core band members and their ideas; with middling attempts at a poppier sound sitting adjacent to a clutch at familiar, cold and detached tones witnessed a year previous on the bands debut, ’Reproduction’. The mismatch of musical desires, ultimately resulted in Ware and Marsh leaving to form Heaven 17 and Oakey (along with Wright) sticking with ‘The Human League’ name and recruiting session musicians to fill the void left by the two departures. In his desire to gain more commercial success from emulating more familiar pop stylings (and in the process, ditching the obscure, avant-garde sound the band became known for), Oakey recruited a pair of female backing singers/dancers randomly picked out of a nightclub, to construct an immensely more accessible sound that lead to ‘The League’ becoming more popular than ever before in 1981.
With the little history lesson above, in mind; it should give a clear indication of what you might expect from ’Travelogue’. It’s an odd blend of dingy, robotic synth warbles and cleaner, more upbeat than ever before electro shots and subtle pop-leanings. For the first time ever, Oakey actually began to sing (his vocals were still way more detached than what they’d become on ’Dare!’) and despite the conflicting lusts for two different musical themes (Commercial pop and avant-garde synth) it works rather well. ’Crow and a Baby’ and ‘Touchables’ display this swirl of pop and alternative well, whereas tunes like the odd opener ’Black Hit of Space’ and ’Gordon’s Gin’ hark back to the earlier, dark futurist sound.
It’s an unusual listening experience because of the musical differences at play but it also becomes all the more compelling for it. ’Life Kills’ is a good example - it features Oakey finding his singing voice but using it to deliver rather cynical lines like “Your life is like a schedule; you run to meet the bills; No one’s awake to tell you: life kills”, whilst ‘Dreams of Leaving’ is a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns that has about three false endings, whereupon the listener believes the song has ended, only for it to suddenly fire out a different eerie melody for a few moments more.
‘Travelogue’ remains a curious footnote in the bands history, for a number of reasons. Whether its the fact that it’s the last record put out by the original, all-male line-up of Oakey, Wright, Ware and Marsh, or that it represents a sign of what direction the band would go (just in time for its most successful year; 1981, where ‘Don’t You Want Me’ would rocket up the charts and cement the bands place in pop history); ‘Travelogue’ is best approached as a curio for those who’ve already explored ‘Dare!’ and a few other albums (perhaps the debut and the couple of albums succeeding ‘Dare!’) and are really interested in trying to form a bigger picture of the band at one of its most crucial and interesting times.