Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
If there is one overriding theme to the intense backstory of Travis Meadows’ life, it’s perseverance. Life has thrown a bag of lemons at Meadows and while the results haven’t necessarily been of the lemonade variety, he’s still here to tell the tale. He has endured an unsettling litany of circumstances including cancer (at 14), addictions, family deaths and more that would have hobbled others, to become one of the most respected songwriters, often for others, in Nashville, no small feat.
His own limited catalog of two previous albums and an EP has detailed many of his travails in hopes of personal closure, particularly 2010’s lauded yet dark Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. While this third release is somewhat less personal in its overall tone (see closing rocker “Long Live Cool”), no one will mistake it for a party platter.
“Relock doors I wish I never opened/unlearn the things I wish I never knew,” Meadows sings in his weathered, torn but affecting voice on the opening “Sideways,” providing a concise summary of his life so far. There’s a substantial Springsteen influence, both in Meadows’ raw singing and lyrical approach. It’s something he celebrates in “Pray for Jungleland,” a “Night Moves”-styled coming of age tale that uses the Springsteen tune as its backdrop. Meadows’ incisive voice also mirrors the Boss on “Travelin’ Bone,” which, although the concept of having to keep moving in life and music isn’t exactly fresh, is presented with honesty and clarity.
Much of First Cigarette is introspective, but Meadows goes for the sing-along jugular on the anthemic “Underdogs,” a song suited to be chanted by crowds at arenas because of its “I Won’t Back Down” subject matter (“we may fall behind but we rise and shine like broken stars…lovers of what others hate..we bend, we bruise but we never break”), thumping “We Will Rock You” ready beat and a “na-na-na-nah” chorus just waiting for lighters to be raised in unison.
Generally though, Meadows ruminates on life by giving advice to youngsters in the insightful, slow rocking “Pontiac” (“Hold on to the innocence/through the almost and the could have beens”), the reflective take-challenges-as-they-come “Better Boat” (“I breath in, I breathe out”) and ultimately rejoicing in where he is now on the uplifting “Guy Like Me.”
The sonic landscape is appropriately stark; the songs are bolstered by generally skeletal backing including drums and electric guitars. Most interesting is how each track flows into the next, an idea from producer Jeremy Spillman, which encourages the album to be absorbed from top to bottom, in one setting. Meadows also played and sang simultaneously, instead of overdubbing. That enhances the raw emotion in his lyrics, making them connect with unusual potency through first and second takes on tunes that reverberate with emotion, positivity and, perhaps above all, perseverance.