Toppermost of the Poppermost
The only catch with a band having a signature sound is, if they’re not careful, it can stagnate quickly. “Everybody’s changing and I don’t know why”, Keane lamented on their smash 2004 debut, Hopes and Fears. Sure enough, while a little more moody, 2006 follow-up Under the Iron Sea mostly stuck to the winning piano-led “adult alternative” sound of its predecessor. Perhaps inevitably, it sold half as much. For their “difficult third album”, then, Keane are changing.
The trio’s image has gone from frumpy lit majors to sleek, leather-sporting hipsters. Even the primary-colored, cutout-type artwork for Perfect Symmetry looks more 1988 than 2008. And the music follows suit. In short, Perfect Symmetry sounds very 1980s. However, not the new-wave ‘80s of Vampire Weekend, or the moody ‘80s of Arcade Fire. Keane, somewhat naturally, have tapped into the bright, bold pop ‘80s. That means when Perfect Symmetry is at its best, you’ll think of a-ha, and when it’s at its worst…Go West, anyone? And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and underneath it all, this is very much a Keane album.
As bands announcing “Change!” usually do, Keane have trailed Perfect Symmetry with its boldest departure from the norm. In the case of first single and album opener “Spiralling”, the announcement comes in the form of enthusiastic “Whoo!“s, outsized pseudo-funk synth-bassline, and a blackboard-scraping guitar riff. Yes, guitar. That’s the potential brilliance of being a piano-led band. The piano is a novelty, and then when you inevitably start using guitars, that’s a novelty, too. More a three-minute confetti burst than a song, “Spiralling” is the sound of that cover art exploding. It’s so unreservedly awful it’s almost fun. Good luck trying to get it out of your head.
From there, just like any self-respecting ‘80s pop album, Perfect Symmetry is front-loaded with hooks and hits. Second single “The Lovers Are Losing” brings back the familiar eighth-note piano rhythm and soaring chords. Absence breeds fondness, and that trademark sound rubs up against you like a lost dog come home. Big opening subsiding into quiet, earnest verse, building into the bridge and BIG chorus, middle eight—it’s classic pop, buoyed by a classic melody and the command of Tom Chapin’s vocal performance. Throw in a euphoric analog synth squeal, and you’ve got a song that hits all the sweet spots. Take that, Coldplay! Touché, Snow Patrol!
“How will they top that?”, becomes the question. They don’t, of course. But they do throw out several more pretty good tunes. On “Better Than This”, a banjo takes the place of the piano, handclaps punctuate the rhythm, and Chaplin’s voice winds in and out of falsetto. It’s a-ha at their most quirky and playful, while the deep synth pad and icy piano arpeggio of ballad “You Don’t See Me” suggests the Norwegians’ more serious side. Both tracks work well, evidencing a versatility Keane don’t often get credit for. But the album’s other real departure, the drum-machined, enervated synth-pop of “You Haven’t Told Me Anything”, works, too. You’re left thinking that Keane could’ve taken more risks with Perfect Symmetry, especially on its back half.
The title track does take the midtempo balladry to new levels of orchestration, with its multi-tracked refrain aiming for the rafters and darn near getting there. But a lot of what follows comes across as bluster-by-numbers. “Again & Again” reaffirms that, for all the newfound assertiveness, Keane do not, can not “rock”. “Pretend That You’re Alone” has a jaunty Madchester feel to it, and just in case you were wondering whether the lads are ‘80s fans, there’s some kitschy sax honking. But it doesn’t change the impression that they’re just punching big choruses and soul-searching verses into a randomizer.
In typical British fashion, behind the slick, upbeat tunes lie some downcast, cynical lyrics. “Love is just our way of looking out for ourselves / When we don’t want to live alone”, Chaplin sings in what amounts to a summation of lyricist Tim Rice-Oxley’s philosophy on the subject. Where once they were naive and uncertain, Keane now are bold and jaded. Like Perfect Symmetry as a whole, it suits them well. Where they’ll go from here is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, Perfect Symmetry should be every bit as unstoppable as they intend it to be.