Hopes and Fears is one of those albums that I want to like. Or rather it’s one of those albums I know I should like. The band is signed to Island records, their formation is off the beaten track, and they come from Battle. This town may only have a population of 6000, but as the place where King Harold met his death at the hands of William the Conqueror’s army it could be described as the birthplace of modern England. It’s also in Sussex and only just a few miles away from Eastbourne, my home town. And to date the closest that my small part of the world had come to holding off the current rock invasion from the north of this Sceptred Isle was with Toploader. And though they were actually from Eastbourne itself, this just wasn’t good enough. Imagine my excitement when it turns out that a band thrown in the same bag as Coldplay and even Radiohead, only comes from up the road.
The singer, Tom Chaplin, looks like a public school boy and sounds like a choir boy. He has the dishevelled blond hair and the pure voice. All he’s missing is the rugby shirt though he probably has one of those hidden away somewhere. He can definitely sing and his voice is somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s. But it lacks the nuance of the former Oxford student. This album is full of ballads fuelled by feelings of alienation, but Chaplin’s voice is consistently powerful and lacks the fragility that would give these songs the edge the band obviously thinks they have.
The volume opens with ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, the third UK single release from the album. This song seemingly mourns a pastoral past and the effortless nature of innocent love: “Oh simple things where have you gone?” Et in Arcadia ego. But the lyrics make it sound like Keane are world-weary and Chaplin’s boyish voice betrays lines such as “I’m getting old and I need something to rely on.” Act your age for God’s sake. And don’t forget that you’re supposed to be in a rock band. Musically, though, the song does move forward. Constructed around a crescendo, we are carried on the crest of its wave. Then it drops away only for the finale to come back at full strength. To be fair, this arrangement is very effective. Only ‘This Is The Last Time’, ‘Bend and Break’ and ‘Can’t Stop Now’ do exactly the same thing.
Apart from repeating the magic formula these songs also highlight other problems. The middle-eight of ‘This Is the Last Time’ comes across as lacking. Guitar aficionados may argue that this is down to being centred around Tim Rice-Oxley’s Yamaha baby grand electric piano. But the use of samplers, keyboards and bass on this record suggests that they could do more to give their songs depth. Sure they are harmonically good and the chord progressions can be interesting, but the final product just seems wanting.
You can also add to this the problem of the lyrics. They are often stripped down to the bare ontological necessities of teenage angst. “Lovesick, bitter and hardened heart, Aching, waiting for life to start If only I don’t bend and break”: if I was going to be really pedantic I would say that you bend precisely so that you don’t break. So say Confucius. Seriously, though, Keane need to lose the immaturity of this type of imagery. The type of imagery that leads Chaplin in ‘She Has No Time’ to move from “And no one ever thinks about you” to “Think about the lonely people”. And the next track ‘Can’t Stop Now’, epitomises everything that is negative about Keane’s song writing, from the swelling keyboards to the “I’m lonely and I’m too tired to talk” lyric.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Keane’s songs described as ‘soaring’. But for me a more accurate description would be to call their songs indie power ballads. In fact, perhaps much of the problem comes from the fact that they have so far been compared to bands from the wrong category. Keane are not a rock band at all, they are a pop act. A very good pop act. If you take a song like ‘Everybody’s Changing’, the lyrics might not deliver the exercise of the mind you feel they promise, but the phrasing is excellent and the tune has a catchiness that goes beyond the mnemonic indoctrination tactics used by the usual mind-numbing chart-topping pop. This is why their début album was nominated for the Mercury Award this year and is now nearing the two million sales mark worldwide.
Perhaps the song that works best for me is ‘We Might As Well Be Strangers’. Though the title seemingly introduces yet another plaintive track, at least the lyrics aren’t trying to do something they’re incapable of and the crescendo is used sparingly and therefore to real effect. The song works at face value, like a good pop song should. And for these reasons, the band has a certain future with a female audience who are savvy about music and like to have something on in the background as their fussing over themselves on Sunday morning. Is that un-P.C. and totally undeconstructed of me? Too late, I’ve said it now.
Song number 10 on this album is exactly this type of track. It’s ambient and atmospheric. The best thing I can say about this is that it washes over you in the way that you want a tune to wash over you when you’re coming down after a night out clubbing. The problem is the song is called ‘Untitled 1’. Oh please. This is like a poet calling his few lines of cobbled together verse ‘Poem’. On the band’s website, Chaplin is quoted as saying “We love rock’s back catalogue, and now we’ve got a chance to add to it”. If this is the case then they should know that this type of titling has been unacceptable since REM called their IRS panoramic collection Eponymous. Perhaps it is this sense of history that pushed Keane to use a chorus effect on Chaplin’s voice on ‘Sunshine’ to produce a sub-Beach Boys homage to close harmony. Who knows?
The edgiest Keane’s output gets is with ‘Your Eyes Open’. This is a song which appears to be about a man being unceremoniously kicked out of bed and out of his lover’s heart: “Morning comes, And you don’t want to know me anymore”. But again, instead of sounding poignant, you feel like telling them to get a grip. Instead of questioning the legitimacy of certain issues they come across as moaning losers. Get over it. Still, at least the way the noise of seagulls in the intro turns into a sparrow’s morning song in the outro is a nice effect. Hmmm. The boys from Battle just need to realise that they’re adding to pop‘s back catalogue. Then their talent could really dominate the intelligent pop niche. If they lose the pseudo-urban b/w photography, the dodgy metaphors centred around “fading” and “dissolving”, the references to being blinded by the light, and such arty effects as the backward playing vocals in ‘Bedshaped’, then Keane could only move on from my fears to their hopes.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I bought this record. This album would look good next to Dido’s No Angel on my shelf. Except that I don’t own a copy of any of Dido’s No Angel. So lads, at least that’s one up on her.