Sometimes the hardest thing for a band to do is what they are best at. That first flush of success comes from what music comes most naturally to them, but then they want to prove that they can do other things too, and suddenly find that success slipping away. And so Strangeland finds Keane eschewing most of the experimentation of Perfect Symmetry and Night Train to focus on what made them so popular in the first place.
Put simply, that’s the song-writing of Tim Rice-Oxley and the vocals of Tom Chaplin, both of which, when at their best, are amongst the brightest talents around. On their first album, those two factors were distilled into a perfect collection of guitar-less indie anthems like Somewhere Only We Know, Bedshaped, Everybody’s Changing, etc, and while Under The Iron Sea saw a darker tone in reaction to their sudden fame and Chaplin’s drug problems, it was still packed with catchy songs like Crystal Ball and Is It Any Wonder?
However, the urge to delve deeper into electronic music and production led to a muddying of the waters for Perfect Symmetry, and Keane’s time at the top evaporated as quickly as it had started. Collaborations with K’Naan on the follow-up mini-album Night Train did nothing to improve things for them. So it’s a bit of a relief to find that Strangeland is a ‘back to basics’ record, focusing on simple, good, songs, even if it does retain a bit of the production sheen of their last two releases. It might not take them back to the top, and doesn’t seem to have won over the critics, but there’s plenty to enjoy.
It’s incredible to think that it’s just eight years since their first album, but perhaps that’s why Chaplin’s vocals still sound so fresh and energetic on the best tracks on the album, most notably the opening trio of You Are Young, Silenced By The Night and Disconnected. He’s an underrated vocalist with a soaring range, and has always been the best instrument at Keane’s disposal, which is perhaps why their more ‘produced’ releases didn’t come across as well, because they drowned him out a little bit. Even on some of Strangeland’s more expansive tracks – Neon River, for example – that never happens here, and it’s for the better.
Lyrically, Rice-Oxley was at his best on Under The Iron Sea (the spine-tingling A Bad Dream in particular) and there’s lots of rather vague exhortations of hope and, well, fears. Perhaps the most telling comes from the opening line of Sovereign Light Cafe, where Chaplin sings: “I’m going back to the time when we owned this town.” Effectively, that’s what Keane have done with Strangeland, and while they probably won’t recapture their town-owning days of five years ago, they’ve proved that they’re still very capable of making the kind of music that will always be easy on the ears. It’s the kind that many critics will sneer at (especially when delivered by a bunch of posh boys) but it’s time to give Keane another chance.