Keane – ‘Strangeland’: 5.2
Keane are one of many British outfits to befall the wrath of the media. Though unlike many, they didn’t even get passed their first album before the praise that lauded ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ turned them into a synonym of soaring sissy-rock; a wetter version of Coldplay. Still licking the wounds after two full albums of clawing from critics, we saw them experiment on 2008’s ‘Perfect Symmetry’, much to mixed responses once again only this time, previously smitten fans were split by the lack of the band’s hallmark penchant for fattening-out feather-weight melodies with Tom Chaplin’s soaring vocals and a truckload of space-filling noise.
When asked about ‘Strangeland’, Chaplin claimed its sound bared most resemblance to ‘Under The Iron Sea’. However, where that album was buoyed solely and precariously by ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ and somewhat assisted by eleven other apparent B-sides from Coldplay’s ‘A Rush of Blood To The Head’, ‘Strangeland’ excels in its astoundingly confident presentation. Chaplin’s voice stills rings with his razor-sharp clarity but it’s upped to an eleven here – it works wonders for the better songs, but it only makes the albums’ frequent mishaps all the more embarrassing. And perhaps it’s because it’s about as far from strange land as an album by Keane could be, but even in the wake of Keane returning to their roots, they’re still a clear country mile ahead of where they were two albums ago. Chaplin does force his listeners to put up with his reliably eye-watering sympathies on nigh-on every track though; it’s vows and questions like “In a city like mine there’s no point in fighting”, and “You and I, we’re gonna rise again” to accompany the chiming melody and sky-blue optimism of lead single ‘Silenced By The Night’ are such that they could slowly ebb away the brilliant shine of ‘Strangeland’s infrequently iridescent productions to reveal a dirty grey undercoat.
But you’ve got to hand it to them, there are few who would dare channel their detractors’ greatest ammunition into the very first lyric of an album whose title suggests an equally ambitious departure from familiar territory as ‘Perfect Symmetry’. Opening their new album ‘Strangeland’ with the lyric “Fearful child, have faith in brighter days”, feels like an Olympic long-jump backwards to the days when Tom Chaplin’s whiny falsetto echoed through Keane’s début album, ‘Hopes And Fears’ and a validation of all their critics’ complaints about their predictable and smotheringly gushy lyrics. However, whilst it assures us this album’s sound and lyrical messages are about as strange as a loaf of bread to the Keane boys, that doesn’t stop them fuelling their vacuous melodies with imported vibes of ‘Joshua Tree’-esque U2 for the opener ‘You Are Young’, a song which tries dealing with rejection and ends up running like a long pep-talk. For the most-part, the rest of the album borrows only from what Keane know, though ‘Black Rain’ (cursed right from the off, with the opening lyrics “I open my eyes; everything shines”) sounds like an out-take from MGMT’s ‘Congratulations’ recording sessions sung by a Ryan Tedder tribute act.
As with every Keane album, the ballads tend to slow the already-pedestrianised pace to near flat-lining. In the past there’s been some substance if not an uncompromisingly bittersweet conflict between spacious piano noise and Chaplin’s ten-year-old’s lyrics. The same can be said for ‘Strangeland’s first two ballads, which very nearly bring the album to a complete stand-still were it not for the urge to skip both (the dreary trying-to-please ‘Disconnected’ and dead-in-the-water ‘Watch How You Go’) and see that some sense was put into to tracklisting after all, with the gloriously catchy sing-along of ‘Sovereign Light Café’ and ‘On The Road’. The former, an ode to hours lost wandering along pleasure beaches at sunset with friends, is an arguably pansy-ish topic to base a song on, but ignoring the lyrics it forms a suitably refreshing soundtrack to any summer afternoon with its effortless cheeriness and Keane’s trademark loveliness. The latter could certainly put in a strong bid to be the best thing Keane have ever recorded if not for its ineffably uplifting melody, then for its eclectic energy as Chaplin’s vocal acrobatics give a magnificent display of versatility that manages to stay on the right side of listenable without becoming cloying.
Of course, there are times when you feel he’s just making the lyrics as he goes along or that he was influenced by a St. Valentine’s Day verse-generator when formulating the lyrics to Another Keane Ballad ‘The Starting Line’. Towards the album’s closure, any residual prowess shown at the album’s heart is dwindled away by a gutless mix of uptempo balladry and cringe-worthy clichés in the form of ‘In Your Own Time’ and the deliriously vacant ‘Sea Fog’, left to be salvaged only by ‘Day Will Come’ which, by its title alone, is enough to reignite the flames in the eyes of Keane’s harshest critics. All of them bleed into one another and conscript to all the typicalities of Keane’s
A very partial success then, as are all of Keane’s albums; again it must be made clear that the band you hear on ‘Strangeland’ couldn’t be further from the one struggling to re-calibrate their image and sound on ‘Perfect Symmetry’. But in the same breath there is a progression evident from the reedy teen-wimp rock of ‘Hopes & Fears’, and ‘Strangeland’s highlights come on in leaps, bounds and more fruitful quantities than even ‘Under The Iron Sea’s best moments. It’s just a shame to see such dead weight strapped onto the end of the album simply to reach Keane’s obligatory 12-track album length.
Digital Release: May 4, 2012
Physical Release: May 4, 2012
Download: ‘Silenced By The Night’, ‘Sovereign Light Café’, ‘On The Road’.