Nearly a year and a half ago, Randy Travis announced he was quitting the road. Almost immediately, industry watchers smirked that the man who'd ushered in the new-country movement with his 1986 major-label debut, Storms of Lifeand then lost his footing with a succession of formula albums-had finally bowed out to the flashier young traditionalists who came in after him and bested him at his own game.
But Travis had a surprise up his sleeve. This is Me, his 10th album, is already being talked about in the same terms as Storms of Lifein other words, as among the North Carolinian's best work. The comparisons are apt on the one hand; they're nowhere close on the other. Whereas Storms of Life offered contemporary material that sounded timelessly vintage, the new record puts a fresh spin on the old sound, using zippier instrumental touches to give the hard-country format a competitive run for its money.
Travis and his longtime producer, Kyle Lehning, must realize that country charts are packed with singers who are such clones that even their own record companies have trouble telling them apart. As a result, they've made This Is Me brim with individualism. After a rest from nightly shows, Travis is in the best voice of his career here. His vocal passes seem effortless and relaxed, and he shoots for high notes for the first time in years. The music itself sparkles with new vitality, from a snare drum so crisp it snaps like snow peas, to the stinging R&B guitar framings in the boogies ''Honky Tonk Side of Town'' and ''Whisper My Name''two songs that suggest Travis readily knows the cousinship between country and blues.
Travis has long used humor in a more tongue-in-cheek, sophisticated way than, say, Garth Brooks with ''Friends in Low Places,'' and he puts a fine point on it with two songs. ''Small Y'All,'' which chastises anyone who's ever gotten into romantic feudin' and fightin', matches the bouncy melodic groove of Hank Williams with the name game of Paul Simon (''Don't it make you feel crazy, Daisy''). ''Before You Kill Us All'' weds a muscular rhythm with a droll lyric in which a man, his four-legged friends, and his plants all wither away in the absence of the woman he drove off. With the goldfish floating in its bowl on top of the water and the cat down to just three lives, Travis paints a seriocomic scene: ''We just sit around and wonder who's gonna be next.''
Ballads have always tempted Travis into some of his most affected moments, particularly those that go beyond earnest declarations of love. He finds an excellent example in the title song, in which he patiently attempts to reach a woman who is now suddenly distant, and in ''The Box,'' which he cowrote. At first just another easy emotional targeta son finds his dead father's stash of personal mementos''The Box'' is such a gem of understatement that by the time Travis gets to the chorus (''We all thought his heart was made of solid rock/But that was long before we found the box''), he's written an entire volume on the confusing roles of American husbands and fathers.
Travis recently filmed five movie roles, which suggests he's about to shuffle off into Kenny Rogers land. A more productive exercise for him might be writing all of the material for his next record. Judging from This Is Me, it should be a snap for a guy who's already come back from the dead.