Four years ago, it seemed liked Keane was finally evolving.
Until that time, they’d been endlessly corralled with Coldplay and Snow Patrol, bands also known for their emotionally exploitative production. But 2008’s Perfect Symmetry was bold in its deviation from the familiar, booming choral arrangements that first brought the British pop-rockers’ success. The albumallowed the band to gain some respect with critics for actually trying something interesting—they experimented with electronic blips and beats, dipping their toe in Radiohead’s waters (though more often sounding inspired by Tears for Fears or Bowie), and took on more adventurous arrangements.
It was a refreshing move from a band so synonymous with brooding and often whiny tracks. Unfortunately, this period of exploration appears to have been short-lived. Strangeland, Keane’s fourth studio album, is a throwback to their earlier style.
It’s not that lead singer Tom Chaplin isn’t a capable and skilled vocalist, or that—when isolated—the piano melodies aren’t beautiful and uplifting. Rather, there’s just far too much happening all at once, leaving the listener overwhelmed. Tim Rice-Oxley (pianist, principal composer and songwriter) never realizes that some restraint would go a long way for the group.
The messages in Strangeland are sweet and simple: the album is about friendship and loyalty, dashed dreams and renewed faith, familiar streets once walked hand-in-hand with a lover, only to seem strange and distant after the fallout—these aren’t unique revelations. Then again, neither are most of music’s most affecting songs.
However, the sweeping, bombastic arrangements and the often repetitive, clichéd lyrics prevent the album from being truly enjoyable, let alone memorable.
“You are Young,” the album’s opening track, wastes no time getting into U2-level soaring vocals, with big, bold piano melodies leading the way into a recitation of Hallmark-worthy words of encouragement. “Fearful child, have faith in brighter days/Stay until this darkness fades away,” Chaplin starts. “Nothing is given/Except the ties that hold us together/Lay down your load/’Cause every day it’s gonna grow.” The song is an ode to carefree youth, naïveté and childish innocence. “You’re shielded by the hands of love,” Chaplin tries to convince the listener.
In a post explaining the process behind “You Are Young” on the band’s website, Rice-Oxley writes that they had spent hours cutting and chopping up the song, trying to “make it snappier and less ponderous”—but what if they hadn’t? A little “ponderous” might have helped the track resonate. The problem isn’t that Keane produced a song about embracing the uncertainties of youth—it’s that they had to hammer us over the head with the message again and again.
The album’s lead single, “Silenced By the Night” follows— another mid-tempo, anthemic track, which has Chaplin singing lyrics like “If I am a river/you are the ocean.” There’s a lot going on: the bright, twinkling piano, solid drumbeat, and synth chords are accompanied by yet another booming chorus, assuring the listener, “You and I, we’re gonna rise again.”
Keane wants to make you feel like everything is going to be okay, but it mostly feels exhausting.
The first three tracks of Strangeland bleed into each other, sounding more or less the same, thanks to their formulaic structure. “Watch How You Go” finally slows the pace down just a bit, though it still feels like the group is phoning it in; the melodies drag along for a monotonous three minutes and 40 seconds, and Chaplin’s hitting all the notes but sounds utterly bored. In the song, Rice-Oxley’s describing the departure of a lover and the eventual acceptance of letting go, but Chaplin’s performance has him mostly walking through the motions— he’s singing the lyrics, but does he believe them? On “Sovereign Light Café” he’s at least finally having some fun: a song waxing nostalgic and made for the “wide-eyed dreamers,” it feels single-ready, but generic. “Neon River” sees the group experimenting a bit with moody synths and dark bass beats, but never really manages to take off.
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Strangeland is an album of overwrought, overworked, overly earnest, and overall noisy sameness—but it ends with a song that is finally able to take the listener somewhere. “Sea Fog” ultimately saves the album. The quiet, understated elegance of the piano melodies on this last track are moving; the phrasing is graceful, managing to be understated and specific. Chaplin’s voice is able to shine here; it takes on a haunting, meditative quality, filled with palpable pain, regret, and hope all at once. This type of restraint and caution serves Keane well; even when Chaplin’s voice inevitably soars into the chorus, this time it feels earned. His vocals finally carry weight and purpose, and the outro’s wistful “oohs” feel more filled with meaning here than entire songs elsewhere on the album.
When a singer has the type of flawless, controlled voice that Chaplin does, the larger-than-life notes don’t always manage to carry the impact that an edgier voice might. So it’s a far more interesting choice when Chaplin either decides to let some unevenness into his voice (like on “Is It Any Wonder?” from 2006’s Under the Iron Sea) or when he explores the more subtle nuances of a song, as he does with “Sea Fog.” The soaring notes here are that much more effective in an otherwise pared-down song. It’s nothing new: less is more.
Fans of Keane’s earlier work might enjoy the brighter, more heavy-handed uplifting songs that make up the majority of this album. But they’re owed at least the same kind of urgency and feeling of real stakes that “Is it Any Wonder?” or “Somewhere Only We Know” both carried. Strangeland won’t damage the band’s career, but it certainly won’t be elevating it, either.