This restrained return for the princes of piano pop is easy to like but harder to love.
It seems like a lifetime ago since Keane’s fifth chart-topper, Strangeland. And in many ways, it has been. Enough for a mid-life crisis or several.
The band has been candid enough about the tribulations they’ve faced during a testing seven-year hiatus. Singer Tom Chaplin’s cathartic solo chapter included a festive album last year to ‘apologise for all the Christmases I’ve ruined’. Writer and lyricist Tim Rice-Oxley has been picking up the pieces after a marital breakdown.
Cause and Effect is a further address to those painful difficulties – addiction and depression, loneliness and the disappointment of letting down families.
Though their lives have taken a major reboot, for the most part the Keane formula has not. There’s a bit of tinkering with synths and keys. Some of the early tracks hark back to the experimental Night Train, sort of familiar but studiously mixing up the sound.
Four songs in, ‘Put the Radio On’ morphs from a dystopian dirge of overcast grey into a sun-breaking refrain of echoey beauty that gives Chaplin a rare chance to shine.
From there, the pace dips, before the plodding thump of ‘Phases’ recalls the band’s iconic track, ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, from fifteen years ago.
The further the album continues, the more familiar the Keane sound of old becomes. The exposed ‘I Need Your Love’ puts Chaplin’s crystalline falsetto to the test. It’s no ‘She Has No Time’, but a reminder that Rice-Oxley remains a gifted balladeer.
There’s a new, grittier substance throughout Cause and Effect, though. That bridge from innocence to experience is captured in lyrics that are rueful and self-recriminating. Rice-Oxley says he spent months agonising over particular words and phrases. That, it seems, sums up the last seven years in a nutshell.
But the album’s strength is also its weakness. This thoughtful and strangely fragile collection makes for very pleasing background listening, with more likeable songs than any album since the inaugural Hopes and Fears, but it lacks a knockout punch.
Chaplin is kept in restraints too often, and while there’s power in subtlety, muting the band’s biggest and most powerful weapon for much of the work doesn’t make enough sense to warrant it.
There’s no successor to ‘Everybody’s Changing’, ‘Perfect Symmetry’, or even Chaplin’s ‘Quicksand’ here, and the album lacks an anthem of that calibre to act as its centre of gravity.
Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see Keane back, not least because it’s the established brand that Chaplin’s talent deserves. And though the way we listen to music has continued to evolve since 2012, Keane’s army of fans hasn’t gone anywhere.
The band did remarkably well to register five consecutive number one albums, but it looks like they’ll fall agonisingly wide of number six. Cause and Effect has peaked at second, and that’s probably about right.
Like many before them, the Sussex songsters have had time to suffer and grow individually, experiment musically, and reunite on better standing. They still feel like a good fit and, once they’ve stopped saying sorry for everything, might still feel that their best work could lie ahead of them.