Written by: CM on 09/05/2012 06:14:34

Keane's "Hopes and Fears," which dropped all the way back in 2004, was one of the handful of records from that year that turned me into an obsessive music fan. It was an album full of soaring choruses, emotional lyrics, and truly spectacular vocal acrobatics (courtesy of lead singer Tom Chaplin), and I fell in love with every one of those songs throughout the end of that year and the beginning of the next. A lot of people would have derided that album as "dull" or "repetitive," and they would certainly have a compelling argument for either case: Chaplin and co. didn't write with a lot of sonic variation. They were a three-piece band, with drums, piano, and voice, and no guitars anywhere in sight, but that wasn't even all of it: the songs generally were built around the same formula, and could easily have run together (in fact, I think they did at first). But that was a time when there were fewer albums at my disposal, and I spent a lot of time with that one: it grew on me, attached itself to a thousand different moments in my life, and became one of the most nostalgic records in my collection. It was a serendipitous connection that the band could never duplicate, and I enjoyed each of their releases less than the previous (though I always appreciated that the band did evolve on each of them). The dark atmospherics of 2006's "Under the Iron Sea" gave way to a more dance/pop-based sound on 2008's "Perfect Symmetry" and an EP a couple of years later, always with diminishing returns, and I became certain that, while I would listen to the band's future music, it would never have the impact of their debut.

Where their contemporaries in Coldplay have moved from their piano-rock roots towards a more fully orchestral, U2-esque sound, Keane has constantly delved further and further into the nuances of Brit-pop, and "Strangeland" is their poppiest record yet. Where their first two records were grounded in emotional piano-balladry, their latest finds them more bent on creating echoing pop soundscapes, full of sweeping choruses and wide-open production. Bassist/guitarist Jesse Quin, who joined the band fairly inconspicuously for "Perfect Symmetry," helps with that task, but his presence also moves the band further away from what made those first two albums special for me. When I think of Keane, it will always be of the bombastic piano chords of "Somewhere Only We Know," or the cold synths of the power ballad that was "She Has No Time," both furnished by keyboardist and composer Tim Rice-Oxley. While both of those things are certainly present here, the wider array of instrumentation and electronic influences that the band has acquired over the past few records has turned them into a completely different musical force. But while that may hinder my nostalgic enjoyment of this record, it only enhances its pop music value, and make no mistake, this is one of the catchiest, most addicting collections of songs that anyone has made all year. Look no further than the opening trio (the introduction of "You Are Young" and the one-two punch of singles "Silenced By The Night" and "Disconnected"), all of which feature high-rise choruses and expansive, enthralling production. The gorgeous 80s AM-pop of "Sovereign Light Cafe" is a highlight and wouldn't sound out of place on a classic Elton John record, while the driving rhythm of "On The Road" sounds equally out-of-time. One of my biggest problems with "Perfect Symmetry" was that it seemed like the band was selling out, giving up on their own sound and major influences, and veering towards modern radio's obsession with electronic, dance, and hip-hop music; "Strangeland" finds the band melding their old sound with a more classic, radio-pop approach, and the results are both reminiscent of a past age and refreshing for the current one.

But while "Strangeland" is loaded with hooks and stirring pop songs, what is lacking is what Keane have always been the best at: the piano ballads. The album's poppier tracks crackle with life and energy that have been lacking from the band's sound since "Iron Sea," but the slower moments, like the tepid "Watch How You Go," which has great verses but a snoozer of a chorus, or the forgettable "Black Rain," which actually gets buried in Dan Grech-Marguerat's reverb-soaked pop production, take an otherwise terrific album down a notch. That's not to say that, when the tempo drops, so does the quality: songs like "Neon River" and album-closer "Sea Fog" are less rhythmically driven than much of the record, but still have the same addictive pop sensibility, but it is a bit of a disappointment, as lyrical balladry has always been one of the band's biggest strengths in the past. Still, even as things have shifted within this band, one aspect, at least, has remained constant, and serves as the same "secret weapon" for these songs as it has for the band's entire output: that ingredient is the voice of Tom Chaplin, which soars, lilts, breaks, and cuts through every stratospheric arrangement and subdued moment that "Strangeland" has to offer; it lends songs like "In Your Own Time" and "Day Will Come" a palpable climactic energy, and imbues "Sea Fog" with a sense of resignation that carries the album out in haunting fashion. Chaplin's delivery, his ability to tap into the emotional core of every song Rice-Oxley pens, and his sheer vocal range, have always baffled me and kept me coming back to this band's music, and probably will continue to do so as long as they record it. People have mocked, derided, and written this band off from the get-go, but at very least, the vocal prowess has always been untouchable. In that sense, he's their Bono.

I received "Hopes and Fears" for my fourteenth birthday, along with Green Day's "American Idiot" and Sister Hazel's "Lift," sandwiched between the weeks and months when I purchased Jimmy Eat World's "Futures" and The Killers' "Hot Fuss," and in the same year that birthed Butch Walker's "Letters" and The Arcade Fire's "Funeral." That list of records constitutes some of my favorite music ever committed to tape and represents the backbone of explosive growth and musical discovery I went through in the fall of 2004. To put it lightly, Keane, no matter the direction they have taken since that release, remain one of the most important figures on my own musical timeline, and because of that, they have earned my attention for life. Only time will tell whether "Strangeland" will, like "Hopes and Fears," stay in constant rotation and pop up on my end-of-the-year list, or be forgotten in the midst of superior records, but for now, it's one of the finest and shiniest collections of pop songs I've heard so far this year, and represents the sound of a band struggling with their influences, indulgences, and yes, hopes and fears, to get back on their feet and deliver a triumph. My belief is that, like their debut, it will only continue to grow on me.


Download: "You Are Young," "Sovereign Light Cafe," "Silenced By The Night," "Day Will Come"
For The Fans Of: U2, Coldplay, Elton John

Release Date 08.05.2012
Island Records

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