Everything new is old again.
Meet the new Keane, different from the old Keane.
That much is obvious as quickly as the opening track of new album Under the Iron Sea hits your speakers -- "Atlantic" is as lovely as one could possibly expect from a keyboard-dominated soft-rock track. Arpeggiated keyboard chords give way to massive strings, the drums lope along with a slightly off-kilter sense of purpose, and the progression never quite resolves itself until halfway through the song, when a sort of shift happens. It's difficult to quantify exactly what happens in this shift, except that it's something of a transition from stark reality to unattainable fantasy. Vocalist Tom Chaplin switches from lament, "I don't wanna be old and sleep alone / An empty house is not a home," to blissful release, "I need a place that's hidden in the deep / Where lonely angels sing you to your sleep"... not cheerful exactly, but it sounds as quiet, peaceful, and dark as it reads. And it's perfect. Keane has hit on something here, something that eschews verses and choruses for the sake of progression, registering high on the Emotional Impact Meter while it's at it.
And while Keane chooses to shift back into verses and choruses for the rest of the album, it has allowed itself (probably through the magic that a major label budget can offer) a new dimension in the production of its songs that was never present on debut full-length Hopes and Fears. Current single "Is it Any Wonder?" is what might have happened had Depeche Mode written Achtung, Baby, Tim Rice-Oxley's keyboards taking center stage with a harsh, but still quite melodic sound. "Hamburg Song" is the album's requisite slow, lilting ballad, and it does this nifty thing where it starts with block chords from a harmonium, but eventually, a more conventional piano part shows up and overshadows it, leaving the harmonium to the background. But from this point, something interesting happens in that background -- the harmonium transforms ever so slowly into a more traditional organ-keyboard sound, giving the song a warmer feel that allows the song development that, melodically, it doesn't really have. Subtle touches like this are all over the album, and they show the signs of a band with a reputation of being ham-fisted with its emotions learning how to make the little things count.
Now, meet the new Keane, same as the old Keane.
Despite the development that they show intermittently throughout the album, Keane is still a three-piece whose primary focus is piano-based sensitive-guy balladry, whether it be slow, medium-paced, or something in between. Furthermore, Rice-Oxley's continued insistence on maintaining his grating habit of creating piano lines based entirely on quarter notes with little to no rhythmic variation is troubling. Likely single candidate "Nothing in My Way" is practically a rewrite of Keane's big hit "Somewhere Only We Know", as is "Bad Dream", at least in the predominant musical sense. Sure, both songs have melodies that you'll remember, and maybe even enjoy, but nothing quite overcomes the ooky feeling that comes with hearing something so obviously self-derivative.
Perhaps more troubling, even in the places where they have moved forward, they've done so in a way that continues to recall the bands and artists that they've been commonly compared to in the past. Much of Under the Iron Sea sounds as though it has been shoved through the X&Y atmosphere filter that Coldplay used on its most recent album to make every song sounds as if it is being written for stadium performance, perhaps forseeing future greatness, but more noticeably sacrificing much of the intimacy that songs as direct as this call for. Further, Chaplin sounds even more like Rufus Wainwright with his vaguely theatrical vocal style, a style that takes subtlety and crushes it under bricks of melodrama. Perhaps such melodrama is necessary, however, when you're delivering lines like "I wake up / It's a bad dream / No one on my side / I was fighting / But I just feel too tired to be fighting / Guess I'm not the fighting kind / Wouldn't mind it if you were by my side," (from the otherwise not-bad "Bad Dream") with a straight face. Chaplin is trying desperately to convey weighty, deep emotion, but just comes off as something of a sap, more to be pitied than identified with.
So it goes that as some of the developments Keane makes are fairly exciting ones, the Keane of Hopes and Fears triumphs once again, a band positively bursting with potential but reeking of complacency. Judging from the font color on the back of the album art, Under the Iron Sea is divided into two parts, and as if to confirm this division, instrumental "The Iron Sea" gets tacked on to the end of "Put it Behind You" (why "The Iron Sea" wasn't allowed its own track, as on the UK release, is unclear). Still, there's no solid thematic difference between the seven songs before the division and the four after -- and this lack of definition quite conveniently sums up the album. It's as if Keane desperately wanted to move past the "three blokes playing simple little songs" label, but didn't have the technical skill or the guts to pull it off. We are left wanting, the vast majority of Keane's potential strewn about the floor like so much neglected dust.