Keane - Under The Iron Sea
So the front page of Q Magazine screams out 'Keane - To Hell. And Back'. The article inside describes the hardship Keane have felt in the making of this record - the rows, the isolation, the strain it placed on their relationships, even wanting to stab Bono. I don't know about you, but from the view of my working week I find the bleatings of music folk (particularly Keane, who do come across as a trio of uninteresting twonks at the best of times) do not attract much sympathy. But they say that this album has been hard work, that its full of darkness, that it demonstrates their struggles, that they really mean it. Honest.
Why then does this album sound so much like the last one. Not much new is explored here, apart from a few highlights this is very much Hopes and Fears Mk.2, the same sound, the same jangle of piano. Like a 'Kids From Fame' album almost every song has the chorus soaring into a higher register, giving it that 'Starmaker' quality. In fact, Bruno would probably feel right at home in Keane, bashing away at his keyboards, making a racket, ticking of Mr Shorofsky.
But at least Starmaker had mildly decent lyrics. The majority of the words on this album are pretty bad. The promo copy I received had the lyrics printed in a facsimile of a school exercise book, and this did little but highlight how much these words come across as adolescent, amateurish poetry. Whilst Tim Rice-Oxley brings power and strength to his music, there is little emotion and depth to his words.
Much has been made of opening track Atlantic, the darkness it is supposed to show, but to be honest it is a very dull way to start the album, the song plods along and concludes in a way so far removed from the beginning that it feels like two songs tacked together. Is It Any Wonder? is better, with that "its not a guitar you know" sound. Why they can't just stop trying to copy a guitar sound and just get one out of the cupboard is beyond me, but the song is pretty good, cracking along at a fair pace with some fine vocals.
But then its just, well, just Keane. Nothing in the Way is full of that billowing piano, and that shimmering sound they put underneath everything, like a bottle-bank being emptied. Leaving So Soon? is more of the same, Tom Chaplin puffing and panting his way through it as if he is trying to inflate a balloon. A Bad Dream is slower paced and probably destined to be a live favourite - it is a close cousin to Bedshaped, and is pleasant enough. Hamburg Song also has a slower atmosphere, a gentle accordion sound providing the accompaniment on a reasonable song.
But then, out of the blue the album comes to life with three songs of much greater quality. Put It Behind You has a choppy rhythm, and some special vocals from Chaplin. Sure, the chorus has that UP moment, but it is a much more interesting song, lifting the album out of the doldrums. And then into the title track, which is great - a dark, brooding instrumental, more of a sound collage than a regular track. It will be interesting to see what the masses make of this - some may leap for the skip button but they would be missing a treat, an interesting piece of music, introspective and moody.
And then into album highlight, Crystal Ball. Despite some truly awful lyrics ('Oh crystal ball, crystal ball, save us all, tell me life is beautiful, mirror mirror on the wall'), this is a fine song, with a killer chorus, exhilarating and full of energy. We sink to the depths on the next song though - Try Again is very bad and makes me wish they had tried again. The lyrics are pitiful, especially the opening lines - 'I feel asleep on a late night train, I missed my stop and went round again' - and then get worse - 'But I was made the way I am, I'm not a stone, I'm just a man'. The music is dull and flat as well, marking this the low point of the album.
From there on, the last two tracks do their best to redeem things, and don't do that bad a job. Broken Toys is good, but still with rather awkward words, and then onto closer The Frog Prince, a curious story of fairy tales and castles and crowns.
Out of the twelve songs here, three of four have real merit, the same number are ok, and the rest are not that great. If you liked Hopes and Fears, you will like Under The Iron Sea - you will not be disappointed. But maybe that is the problem. This is probably the album the casual music buyer will get this year, which is frustrating. Please don't think I'm a musical snob - my review of A-ha's 'Analogue' hopefully shows I'm not. If you want an album of effective, emotive pop music, played mostly on a piano, why not take a deep breath and get that instead. The sad thing is though, Under The Iron Sea will probably sell more in its first day than Analogue has sold so far.
There is so much out there better than this, both musically and emotionally, so much that just gets missed while millions of these will be snapped up at Asda. This album fails to deliver its promises, and shows a band clearly standing still.
See here how to hear tracks from the album online.