Oil & Water
RCA Inspiration (release date: August 20, 2021)
By Robert M. Marovich
Listening to Travis Greene’s Oil & Water reminds me of a quote ascribed to hymnist John Newton: “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
On multi-Grammy Award nominee Greene’s new studio album, and particularly on its title track (with Anthony Hamilton), Greene celebrates the transition, made possible through salvation, from an old way of living to a new and fuller life. That and the metaphors of oil and water—two elements united in the act of blessing or anointing although, together, they don’t mix—provide food for thought in contemplating the album’s meaning.
But Greene may also be hinting at an artistic or musical break with the past, because the album is, in many ways, sonically dissimilar from his previous work. For example, “Search Me” opens with an electronically-driven orchestral flourish, akin to a movie soundtrack. The lyrics are initially introspective, like a prayer overheard in an otherwise quiet church, then subsumed in a fiery duet between Greene and Tasha Cobbs Leonard. “Dependable,” with Darrel Walls, lifts a prayer of thanksgiving on the wings of Imogen Heap-influenced electronic tricks. Ambient new age electronica also embraces ‘Somehow,” a wide-eyed paean to God’s constancy, sung with Kierra Sheard. “Easter,” which like the title track employs a brisk rhythm, thumping bass, and a chorus of background vocalists, eventually leaves the P&W of Greene and featured vocalist Todd Dulaney behind and morphs into a score of thrumming African polyrhythms.
The most radio friendly selection is the single “Hold on Me,” with vocal assists from Kirk Franklin and John P. Kee. Playing characters in a song-skit, the trio evokes the informality as well as the intentionality of Sunday worship, as a punchy Franklin-style arrangement speaks to the spiritual freedom made manifest after the altar call.
“Wonder” (featuring Le’Andria Johnson) and “Love Song” (with Madison Binion) evoke Greene’s earlier acoustic period. Greene’s voice here and elsewhere on the album’s more delicate selections has less of a characteristically gospel tone and sounds more like a muted trombone at an early-morning jazz jam session.
With the exception of “Hold On Me,” the songs don’t improve measuredly as a result of featuring well-known vocalists. It’s not that the featured artists aren’t accomplished in their own right, or not do a good job in their cameo roles, it’s just that Greene and his BGVs, or members of the BGVs, could easily have handled the load all by themselves.
Oil & Water is decidedly different from Travis Greene’s previous material, not in terms of the spiritual message, but the way in which that message is delivered—in a liquid not made of water or oil but some new compound in between.
Four of Five Stars
Picks: “Oil & Water,” “Love Song”