Familiar but appealing anthemic uplift from the good boys of pop rock.
A stylistic step sideways was taken by Keane on 2008’s Perfect Symmetry, their last full-length album. Heralded by the exhilarating whoops and “woohs” of its first single “Spiralling”, Perfect Symmetry drew - for the most part dynamically -- on '80s synth-pop, adding some fresh textures and an exciting sense of experimentation to the band’s material, sometimes dismissed as worthy-but-dull indie pop/rock in the Coldplay mould.
From this perspective, the band’s new release Strangeland might seem like a backwards step, since it very much returns the group to the mode of chiming, mid-tempo piano rock established on Hopes and Fears (2004) and Under the Iron Sea (2006).
Those adverse to anthemic uplift would be well-advised to steer clear of Strangeland, which consistently trades in buoyant melodies and lyrical exhortations of the “have faith in brighter days” and “we’re gonna rise again” variety. Although serviceable in context, Tim Rice-Oxley’s lyrics are too reliant upon such generic statements of empowerment here. The musical approach is sometimes derivative too: both the opening track “You Are Young” and the first single “Silenced by the Night” wear their U2-ish leanings firmly on their sleeves, while “Black Rain” is a reverent Radiohead pastiche boasting Tom Chaplin’s very best Thom Yorke impersonation.
That Strangeland emerges as engaging and enjoyable as it does despite all of this, is down to the sense of warmth in the band’s interplay and the inviting tone that producer Dan Grech-Marguerat sustains across the record. Yorke-aping moment aside, Chaplin’s vocals remain as distinctive, robust, and appealing as ever, and he manages to give even the most clichéd of the album’s lyrics the commanding fervor of conviction.
After a solid start with the chugging “Disconnected” and the elegantly textured, Ron Sexsmith-ish ballad “Watch How You Go", the album hits its stride at the mid-point with its three most satisfying songs. “Sovereign Light Café” is a nostalgia-drenched paean to the band’s formative years, complete with “sha-la-las”. “On the Road” is a chunky, rollicking stomp, and entirely infectious. And “The Starting Line” quivers and shimmers before swooning into the album’s most alluring chorus.
The second half of the record is less impressive, but the album reaches a fine finale on the spectral “Sea Fog”, one of the sparest and most haunting moments here. Some listeners will doubtless lament the absence of strangeness on Strangeland (a record whose oddest conceit is to relegate its title track to the album’s Deluxe Edition). But in its place Keane have crafted another accomplished, warm, and welcoming record, one whose open-hearted generosity of spirit ultimately proves hard to resist.