Keane, ‘Strangeland’ (Island/Interscope)
Release Date: May 7, 2012
Keane are one of those groups based entirely on a single riff from a better song in a better band’s catalog — in this case, the piano part from U2’s “New Year’s Day.” When the Keane’s Hopes and Fears (better title: The Bono Variations) surfaced in 2004 — a year in which Coldplay released no recorded music — the masses hungry for contemporary yet comforting AOR gobbled it up. Unlike so much 21st century Brit rock, that debut even went platinum in America, and now ranks as one of the world’s best-selling albums of the last 10 years.
Keane’s biggest hit, “Somewhere Only We Know,” fills every qualification for Mountaintop Rock, a.k.a., the Euro equivalent of America’s Heartland Rock. The latter conjures corn-covered flatlands, greasy spoons tended by waitresses in anachronistic beehives, and various other touchstones of places Talking Heads had in mind when David Byrne declared, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” The European version features manly warbling that only happens in recording studios or remote nature settings, reverberating drums that imply echoing canyon walls, pea-soup basslines thick enough to require rubber boots, and studio gizmos spewing sonic mist everywhere. “Somewhere” has all that and Mountaintop-perfect lyrics: “I came across a fallen tree / I felt the branches of it looking at me…This could be the end of everything.” You can practically hear the tears crawl down frontman Tom Chaplin’s cheeks, staining his Burberry tartan.
No band can avoid messing with a sound so quintessential. On their subsequent records, Keane has added effects pedals that made their trademark pianos ring like guitars (2006’s Under the Iron Sea); cracking snares that recall David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” synths that echo Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” and actual Bowie-esque guitars (2008’s Perfect Symmetry); and vocals from personable, internationally travelled rappers K’naan (Somalia, Canada) and Tigarah (Tokyo, Brazil) on 2010’s Night Train. On those last two records, the original trio expanded into a far more flexible four-piece — and the resulting sound didn’t sell nearly as well. So, for Strangeland, we return to the proven misty Mountaintop.
Sung to a “fearful child” lying beside the singer, opening track “You Are Young” rings with both time-honored “New Year’s Day” piano and you-and-me-against-the-world bravado. Chaplin’s got an authoritative and technically faultless voice, but he’s also an uncanny mimic, even when it’s not exactly appropriate or seemingly intended. Although he’s previously suggested Chris Martin, Thom Yorke, and former a-ha frontman Morten Harket, here he sounds more like England’s Elvis-large veteran superstar Cliff Richard, while the track builds as if he’s marching up an incline until peaking with a wordless “oh-woah-oh-woah,” the chant that’s broken language barriers on countless Europop anthems, from Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy” to the David Guetta-enabled hip-hop techno hits of today. It’s a move of desperation, one that boldly announces that the old Keane are back and begging for more of our exchange-rate-dwindled dollars.
Keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley — who apparently writes all the songs, but shares credits and royalties with his bandmates — has a knack for sticky tunes. Yet while the artists who are his obvious inspirations typically used those skills to sweeten unusual textures or make challenging lyrical content more palatable, Keane celebrate hooks for hooks’ sake. And that’s okay: Pop is its own defense. But when the catchy stuff is freighted with tired ingredients that have informed chart-toppers for decades and are synched to lyrics dripping with romantic and positive-affirmation clichés, it borders on abuse, or at least something that can make you feel as if you’re being seduced while not being thoroughly respected.
Nearly every song evokes a relationship in the final unraveling stages: In one of his better lines, Chaplin sings of a “chemical that’s breaking down the glue / That’s been binding me to you.” There are goodbyes (“Watch How You Go”), better times recalled (“Sovereign Light Café”), promises of sustained goodwill (“On the Road”), advice for new beginnings (“The Starting Line”), flurries of despair (“Black Rain”), reports on stasis (“Neon River”), and so forth, until a final piano ballad announces an acceptance of things that didn’t go as planned (“Sea Fog”). Of those, the sprightly a-ha moment of “On the Road” works most genuinely: To hear it is to recall Molly Ringwald dancing on the library mezzanine in The Breakfast Club. But much of the rest is married to a mid-tempo Coldplay shuffle that eventually neutralizes any sympathy you might feel.
True, Rice-Oxley once turned down Martin’s invitation to join a pre-stardom Coldplay, so he’s got a birthright to this stuff. But every sadsack pop-rocker around has released a break-up album in recent years; and Keane don’t reveal enough musically or lyrically to differentiate their loss from so many others. If you’re going to climb Mountaintop Rock only to drop an avalanche of bummers, show us why we should stick around to care. Otherwise, we’re running for the same wall of safety you’re hiding behind.