Who'd have thought it? Piano-pop trio Keane - they of the school of soaring middle eights that never fail to come in on cue - have returned with a record that's three parts booming hip-hop beats to only two parts melodic wholesomeness. The pre-release literature touted Perfect Symmetry as a shift in direction, a band's true arrival before we had even heard a single glorious, polythene-coated phrase.
A shift it certainly is. The record's coup de grāce appears, in fact, on its third bar with anthemic whoops and vocal whoas, followed by a shower of synthesizers and handclaps. So yes, if anything, it's one of the year's most striking homecomings. A band that is keenly feeling its rush of blood to the head. It's also one of the most unashamedly front-loaded releases to have not been delivered by the Disney stable - quite appropriate for an album that is, perhaps, more concerned with announcing its difference than it is with offering a genuine, organic progression.
Thus it all begins well. The opener and lead single Spiralling is surprisingly tricky and glitteringly dynamic; an irresistible ra-ra riot that staggers and heaves its rhythms and Thatcher-era keyboards all over the place. It's so smart a pop operation, aligning itself as it does alongside the best of them from ABC to XTC, that not even Tom Chaplin's diet-Simple Minds spoken-word section ("Do you want to be a winner? Do you want to be an icon?") could crash its momentum. Chasing this, The Lovers Are Losing's unashamedly populist hook highlights the band's capacity for outsized, chest-beating lyrics: "I dreamed I was drowning in the River Thames/I dreamed I had nothing at all," they intone from the first couplet. Better Than This, with its vague, voguish lift from Ashes to Ashes-era David Bowie, is catchier still.
Credit for this extended palette must go to the keyboardist-songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley, who presumably returned to the band with an arsenal of bubblier sounds having worked on Gwen Stefani's The Sweet Escape project. Still, it doesn't hurt having über-producers Stuart Price and Jon Brion show up here for some smart collaborations either. The Eighties-pop pep in You Haven't Told Me Anything's fuzzy, new-wave soundscape and wry, dance-pop charmer Again and Again are the most obvious beneficiaries.
The thing is, this revisionist ambition soon becomes as much of a problem as it is an unexpected pleasure. By the time we reach the title track - the album's fifth - the once-bright keyboards have dulled; the sheer maximalist glitz has already exhausted the ears. These 11 songs rematerialise as what they really are: the same Keane sermons, just tightly wrapped and full of strutting synths. (Check out the sleeve to see the boys enacting a parallel visual schema.) Chaplin's state-of-the-nation blues, which are actually more outspoken and all the more compelling this time round - defiantly disregarding "the sound of bombs ? with a rock 'n' roll song" on Playing Along; wishing he could submerge "in the cellars of the sea" on Black Burning Heart - sound less urgent because of it.
That is not to say that Perfect Symmetry is not this band's best yet. It is the sound of a band that has reached its third-record crossroads - and (almost) chosen the right way to go. I just wish Keane had satisfied their arena-scaled ambitions with more charm and less veneer. firstname.lastname@example.org