I rarely buy new albums these days. Three, plus an EP, in the past 18 months, to be precise. But where I’m prepared to do so unquestioningly, I realise the importance of what I’m investing in.
Should Keane top the charts with Strangeland later today, they will swiftly follow Coldplay (and another of my dear charges, Erasure) into an exclusive list of British bands to have achieved a fifth consecutive number one album.
Reviewers, on the whole, have been less than impressed, however. And, funnily enough, I see myself drawn to defend Keane in a similar way to the 80s bands that I admire so much.
What it all says, to my eye – and the same is surely true of academia – is that reviewing often says more about the state of criticism itself than the subject at hand.
Keane swung into new territory following two highly successful early albums. Moderating the Scissor Sisters’ more gregarious lead, Keane’s Perfect Symmetry joined The Killers in a revisionist 80s revival in 2008, with Night Train following two years later. Mainstream fans were aghast, but held on, as if odium were the only thing more pleasurable than departure.
And critical reception of Keane also wavered disproportionately around this lateral shift. To some, it was a ghastly move – over-experimental and over-tainted by the conceptual leanings of Muse and Radiohead. To others, it added an edge and eclecticism to an otherwise characterless plateau.
One reviewer described Night Train as a ‘stench’ that Strangeland only partly disperses. But was it really such a major refashioning? The whole ‘dipping in and out of form’ idea is often rather vacuous – especially when chart positions don’t suggest a major collapse.
Certainly, ‘Spiralling’ is the radical lurch of Perfect Symmetry (2008), with its coarser synth-riffs and more unusual electronic slants. But the title track keeps the classic piano-rock pulse in close embrace, while the pleading ballad ‘You Don’t See Me’, panned by critics, forms a sumptuous companion piece for the haunting ‘She Has No Time’ from the first Hopes and Fears album. In other words, it’s a small proportion of the album that spearheads the alleged revolution.
Night Train has a more ambitious scope of influence in its shorter span. ‘Back in Time’ sets a similarly eclectic opening tone, while smooth collaborations with K’Naan mark what would appear to be the most distinct genre shift. The greatest departure, really, is the indie pageant, with ‘Clear Skies’ leaning towards the Gorillaz, and both ‘Ishin Denshin’ and ‘Your Love’ casting a pleasing glance to the late 1980s indie/pop intersect.
But traditional Keane is never left behind. The closing track, ‘My Shadow’, is possibly the most striking single opportunity since the band’s early 2004 successes. Mature, with gripping rock dynamics, it befits the closure of an EP that’s defined by looking backwards – a band sighting the end of its own detour. I couldn’t resist using this to look backwards myself.
Different is Everything
And yet, critics now find middle-ground with Strangeland, responding nonchalantly to the band’s ‘return-to-signature’ sound. The underlying mentality, then, is one that awards more kudos for anything that attempts to be ‘different’, even if the result apparently fails, than one that aims to satisfy through the tried-and-tested.
The conclusion: that safe is too often weak. And this is where the reviewers’ curse comes in. Since when did danger ever become a prerequisite? Why have risk and radicalism become the defining criteria for critical predisposition?
Staying ‘relevant’ is a nightmare – true enough. There are many artists who survive with an ongoing hope that relevance can somehow bend to suit them. The NME has noted a radical difference between the singles and album charts in 2012.
But Keane’s flawless chart success, which reviewers of Strangeland have largely ignored, shows that their formula does have purchase. Consistency at this level owes more than to formula alone, though. In a chart that’s swinging towards younger listeners, social media trends, and so forth, it’s worth stopping to think what it is that continues to capture the imagination as tastes change.
Is it the quality of Tom Chaplin’s vocals, celebrated by Queen in 2010, but barely mentioned in writing? Is it because of the plaintive, poignant sound, threnodies to past lives and loves? Adele’s sole album of heartbreak has clearly captured the nation, but boys have deft souls too.
‘Neon River’, gorgeous in title and execution, seems a drop-shot out of the lyric book of Fleetwood Mac. The femme fatale leaves for the city, glimpsing the neon lights. To look back brings the foolish feeling of naivety: of growing up, moving on, and never returning. Hesitation and separation are drenched in a weak smile, a facade of strength.
Having left my coastal home city behind nine years ago, it is still my only home. The ‘Sovereign Light Café’ is a riveting nostalgic reverie of memories on the Sussex coast. “I’m a better man now than I was that day”, the song mournfully lauds.
Don’t we all wish that we could relive the past with our painfully acquired wisdom? Retrospection and renewed respect for time are ingrained sensibilities at a time when it’s easier than ever to say or do something that we later regret.
What Keane does is turn platitude into altitude. In doing so, they develop a solipsistic musical comfort that critics will always struggle to accept, but that the rest of us, perhaps, have always privately wanted.