Review: Keane - Strangeland
Keane have always been that bit different. Beginning their career with their excellent debut album ‘Hopes and Fears’, Keane have always tried to find a unique sound – certainly not rock orientated, but more leaning towards a casual pop sound, with electronic hints stretched throughout. ‘Hopes and Fears’ still remains the album Keane made the greatest impact with, which included the singles ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ and ‘Bedshaped.’ Their other albums (‘Under the Iron Sea’ and ‘Perfect Symmetry’) used diverse techniques, but still kept the main principles of that starting sound.
That principle of piano pop continues with ‘Strangeland’, the band’s fourth album. Immediately, the tone seems significantly lighter than the lovelorn ‘Perfect Symmetry’, with the album’s opening track, ‘You are Young.’ With Tom Chaplin’s voice, the use of piano keeping the beat, while a soft electronic beat ticking over, it all seems like Classic Keane. However, despite this, it’s difficult not to see the opening track as a misstep – the song seems slightly repetitive, made more grating by the use of the clunky lyric: “You’ve got time to realise you’re shielded by the hands of love.” This cliché ridden lyric drags the song down, working against the sincerity of the song to create an almost melodramatic opening.
Luckily, this isn’t a reflection on most of the album. “Silenced by the Night”, while maybe taking a few listens to get used to due to its simplicity, is a solid track, with a great chorus. The song largely relies on Chaplin’s voice, which, once again, shows its musical dexterity. This is followed by the first truly excellent song: “Disconnected.” In contrast to “Silenced by the Night”, “Disconnected” has an intriguing buildup, leading to a booming chorus. Lyrically, it’s a strong song: such phrases as “tied so tight we wound up miles apart” and “We walk in circles, the blind leading the blind” create effective imagery, creating a feeling of sincerity that Keane do so well. This all leads to the wonderful line “There’s an invisible wall between us now”, sung beautifully by Chaplin, which ends the song on a high.
After “Disconnected”, “Watch How you go” drops the pace, with a slow drum beat, relying solely on piano, and Chaplin’s voice. Piano plays a key role in this song, creating a mournful beat, delivering emotional release in spades, something Keane always excel at. This is shown in the critical line: “The things that we have shared will soon be left behind us now”, a line with real emotional weight that sells it.
“Sovereign Light Cafe” is the fifth song, and while it’s still better than “You are Young”, the song shoots itself in the foot. While the beat and tempo of the song are upbeat, making the song catchy and easy to listen to, the lyrics at times make it difficult to identify with. It’s obvious this song is about nostalgia, feeling at home, but it feels like a personal song for the band, such examples of landmarks as The Sovereign Light Cafe and East Parade alienate the listener, as if you are witnessing a private in-joke. It’s still a good song, but not quite the album defining track the band were probably hoping for.
“On the Road” continues the upbeat tempo but, with the prominent drum beat, it creates an instantly catchy framework. This is reinforced by a deceptively simple chorus, but the swift, sharp sentences keep the beat continuous – the tempo only dropping slightly with the interesting introduction of electro two-thirds of the way in. And, while there are a couple of dodgy lyrics in there, with a song of such catchiness, it’s easy to forgive such annoyances.
This is followed by the excellent song “The Starting Line”, a song that introduces a level of consistency that is continued for the rest of the album. The song not only has an excellent beat, but also demonstrates the strength of Keane’s lyrics. Such wonderful lines as “The streetlights that are daggers to your eyes” and “love won’t rest till it brings you to your knees” reinforce the incredible chorus. The chorus includes one of Keane’s very best lyrics: “Forgot the ghosts that make you old before your time,” not only beautifully reinforcing the meaning of the song, but using stark imagery to give the song an emotional weight. It’s an excellent song, largely because of the quality of the lyrics.
Drawing from this emotional sincerity, “Black Rain” is the best song on the album. Here though, where “The Starting Line” creates an almost uplifting feeling, “Black Rain” quashes it, with one lyric. This wonderful, emotionally naked lyric (“If you’ve got love, you better hope that that’s enough”) is, in itself, beautiful, expressing humanity’s reliance on love to survive, but it’s made even more potent by its unexpectedness. Up to this point, the album’s tempo has largely been one of positivity, so to have “Black Rain” expose the fragility of love with such a haunting lyric is a testament to the quality of the song and musical variety of Keane. The feeling of loneliness is reinforced by the last minute simply being filled by the gorgeous piano playing, as the song slowly drifts towards its end.
“Neon River” picks up the upbeat tempo, but relies heavily on an electronic sound, as opposed to using it merely in the background. It creates a unique sound for Keane. It’s another great song; the electronic sound complementing the song’s focus on love loss, and the feeling of passing time.
“Day Will Come” and “In Your Own Time” both do similar things; reintroducing more of a pop-orientated sound, with short, sharp lyrics. “Day Will Come” continues the positive attitude the album has largely portrayed, while “In Your Own Time”, through its use of sorrowful tone, creates a feeling of acceptance; that it’s “just the way things are.” It’s an important song, especially considering the exceptional final song of the album.
One line in particular from “In Your Own Time” complements the tone of “Sea Fog.” The line (“But I’m as lost as you are lost, these days”) is almost a lead in to the emotionally gripping finale. “Sea Fog” is a song of loss; of bitterly accepting the fallibility of human endeavour, shown in such lines as “I’ve strayed too far from the road” and “I won’t fight from the rising tide/If that’s the way it has to be.” This is reinforced beautifully by the ending: the final minute filled with nothing but piano and the echoing moan of Chaplin’s voice. It is an incredible ending, and a stark contrast to the beginning of the album.
“Strangeland” feels like a journey; of Keane reflecting on how far they have come. While, at times, the positive, upbeat tone of the album may be a bit hard to swallow, the album, taken as a whole, is great because of the band’s musical dexterity, and the emotional contrast demonstrated from the songs “Black Rain” and “Sea Fog.” While, arguably, they are the album’s highlights, it’s a fair point to bear in mind one of the reasons they have such a hold on the listener is because they are so different in tone to the rest of the album. The second half of the album in particular is consistently excellent, more than making up for the couple of pitfalls held within the first half.
“Strangeland” is by no means Keane’s strongest outing, but, with the band putting their lives in perspective, it is possibly their most important.