Night Train is only eight tracks and that’s all it needs to be.
Keane should be commended for kicking the CD-era habit of packing an album with 70-80 minutes of music. The construction of Night Train, the group’s fourth release since Hopes and Fears (2004), heralds back to a bygone era when even the biggest pop artists released albums that challenged the standard five-to-a-side LP format. Look at the “Album of the Year” Grammys for 1983 (Michael Jackson: Thriller) and 1984 (Lionel Richie: Can’t Slow Down). They featured nine and eight songs, respectively. David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (1983)? Madonna’s 1983 debut? Eight songs.
On Night Train, Keane employs what in the 21st century might seem like a novel methodology: record tracks, select the best cuts, keep the album to a manageable 35 minutes, and let the listener absorb (and repeat) in one sitting. Whatever the conceit for releasing only eight songs — perhaps they didn’t have enough material or were just eager to release these particular eight tracks — Keane serves up a concise, competent follow-up to Perfect Symmetry (2008).
Entitled with a nod to Keane’s preferred mode of transportation during their 2008-2009 world tour, Night Train further elucidates why Tom Chaplin, Richard Hughes, Tim Rice-Oxley are some of pop music’s most reliable tunesmiths. Of course, with the number of fans Keane has accumulated after tallying sales of 10 million albums also comes the inevitable derision from critics. Night Train will fuel constituents of both camps. The sound is big, the melodies are chock full of hooks, and, save for “Your Love”, the voice of Tom Chaplin wails above the whole production.
“House Lights” is a dramatic, minute-and-a-half prelude. Its thunder claps and otherworldly white noise intimate that maybe the clear skies Chaplin sings about later on the album really are falling. Constructed around a backwards chord progression that connotes a kind of time travel, “Back in Time” makes as boisterous an entrance as “Spiralling” did on Perfect Symmetry. The purest nectar of the band’s talents flows through the verses, where the production momentarily strips down to drums, guitar, bass, and Chaplin’s vocals. It’s a stark counterpoint to the chorus, which sounds like an onslaught of laser beams.
The genius of Keane arrives towards the second half of the Night Train journey on “Clear Skies”. It’s a perfect song, largely because of the rhythmic interplay between hand claps, drums, and acoustic guitar underneath Chaplin’s quietly plaintive performance. “I wish that I could see the world the way you do, as selfishly as you”, he sings. His tempered delivery makes the sting of the words that much more profound.
The AOL dial-up introduction of “Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself)” quickly directs Night Train towards a smiling, pop-friendly place. Recorded by Japanese electro-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1983 on their Service album, “Ishin Denshin” features baile funk MC Tigarah warbling the original verses in Japanese while Keane merrily chant, “See how the world goes ’round, you’ve got to help yourself” in the song’s chorus. On an album that often trades in soft existentialism, “Ishin Denshin” is a welcome jolt of joy.
However, Night Train takes a detour from its near flawless route on two tracks. “Looking Back” is marred by a tacky, ersatz interpolation of the theme from Rocky (1976), diluting a strong composition with an unnecessary dash of camp. An awkward guest appearance by K’Naan doesn’t help the song either, nor does “Stop for a Minute” benefit from a cameo by the rapper. Pairing Keane with K’Naan might have seemed like a good idea on paper but falters in execution. Aside from the press release-worthy mention of pairing a Somali rapper with a British rock band, neither “Looking Back” or “Stop for a Minute” serves either act.
Keane redeem themselves from those missteps on “Your Love” and “My Shadow”. On the former, a rare lead vocal by Tim Rice-Oxley dresses the unabashed ’80s synth-pop sensibility of the song while Chaplin makes the pensive lyrics of “My Shadow” soar as the drama of the track intensifies. In typical Keane fashion, the latter tune defies understatement though the words beg for a more subtle approach. However, it’s a solid conclusion to Night Train, an excursion that introduces its passengers to memorable vistas, even when the scenery could be improved.