At the outset, Travis Tritt's third album, T-r-o-u-b-l-e (Warner Bros.), promises to be a barn-burning follow-up to the platinum and double-platinum records that established him as one of the foremost of country's new breed. His trademark high-octane energy, derived from the melding of Southern rock and honky-tonk, kicks in from the get-go on ''Looking Out for Number One,'' where twin electric guitars threaten to run down anyone who gets in Tritt's way.
But soon it becomes obvious that this son of the New South is mired in some t-r-o-u-b-l-e of his own. Despite the rhythmic vitality of the up-tempo numbers, especially the title cut, a reworking of a 1975 Elvis Presley rave-up, Tritt's new album is missing the fresh approach to familiar subject matter that made his first two efforts so winning.
Though Tritt is the writer or cowriter of 6 of the 10 cuts, as a lyricist he never sounds inspired. There are no songs with the irresistible cheek of ''Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),'' or the satiric fire of ''Bible Belt.'' Of the four ballads, only the impassioned ''Can I Trust You With My Heart'' throbs with the pain of the earlier ''Anymore'' and ''Help Me Hold On.''
In the competition with his old self, Travis keeps losing. The Marty Stuart penned ''A Hundred Years From Now,'' though admirable honky-tonk, doesn't pack the punch of a previous drinking-her-off-my-mind rouser, ''The Whiskey Ain't Workin','' a Tritt-Stuart duet. On several songs, Tritt once again mines the working man's dual sense of pride and inferiority, but never with the soulful sensitivity he employed on ''I'm Gonna Be Somebody.''
On ''Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man,'' Tritt finds a solid image for his laborer's lament (''Them politicians treat me like a mushroom/'Cause they feed me bull and keep me in the blind''). But the melody is so slight that he resorts to an acoustic arrangement that evokes Jimmie Rodgers and the young Roy Acuff making a symbolic bridge between the Great Depression and the Grim Recession. He also beefs up the last chorus with a gaggle of celebrities, including George Jones and Tanya Tucker, to pull the song out of the fire.
Surprisingly, Tritt closes his album with a nearly nine-minute cover of bluesman Buddy Guy's ''Leave My Girl Alone,'' where he exposes both the strengths and limitations of his sandpaper-on-asphalt vocal style. The singer strives mightily for a badass attitude, straying into a form of caterwauling so stratospheric that only dogs can hear it, but we never believe that he's angry enough to break out the razor.
What Tritt has made is a fairly average album with no true killer songs, which he attempts to disguise with spunky performances, guest stars, and sterling instrumental accompaniment. Tritt says he defines country music as a ''soundtrack for the lives of working people.'' But the 29-year-old Georgian, a former truck loader who's preparing for a role in a Kenny Rogers movie, no longer seems in touch with the working man's life, only paying it lip service with predictable verbiage. Such superficiality rather than heartfelt experience is enough to dampen a blazing career.