Echoes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen can be heard on Keane's fourth album, Strangeland, which is possibly their best work yet, writes Stephen Dalton.
Keane Strangeland (Island)
Keane have never been critical favourites, especially in their native Britain where they are routinely mocked for their floppy-haired poshness and their soppy, sparkly, sub-Coldplay power ballads. But if success is the best revenge, the Hugh Grants of arena-rock must be feeling pretty vindicated by now. With more than 10 million albums sold so far, they have quietly evolved over the past decade into a best-selling global brand, joining an elite premier league of Britpop bands with a solid international fan base.
This fourth album is the sound of four well-bred, happily married, financially comfortable Englishmen taking stock of life as they cruise into their mid-30s. On paper, deadly dull. But on record, it is a richly tuneful and emotionally absorbing experience, possibly their finest work yet, and certainly their most musically sophisticated. On their last album, Perfect Symmetry, Keane sounded like the English cousins of the Killers. Strangeland finds them aiming higher, for the dizzy heights of U2 and Bruce Springsteen, and almost hitting the target.
There are certainly clear echoes of U2 in the opening track You Are Young, with Tom Chaplin's voice soaring high over Tim Rice-Oxley's signature twinkly piano motifs. The Springsteen comparisons kick in with the widescreen shimmers and roaring gradients of Silenced by the Night, the achingly lovely Sovereign Light Cafe and the tear-jerking Neon River, each a miniature rock opera about the bittersweet tensions between nostalgic longing for your small-town roots and burning hunger to escape them.
It takes a few listens for the honeyed harmonies of Disconnected to work their laid-back magic, but this soon emerges as one of the strongest tracks on the album, with a sleepy-warm circular melody and softly chugging rhythm that recall The Strokes in their prime. The ghostly, gliding, electro-ambient ballad Black Rain is another understated beauty, and a welcome digression from otherwise fairly conventional pop-rock arrangements. Ending on an incongruously mournful note, the low-key finale is Sea Fog, stripping the band's swollen sound back to just voice and piano.
Strangeland also contains a handful of lesser tracks, straining for an emotional weight they never quite earn, but mercifully few. The general quality threshold is high, the tunes coherent and consistent. And though there remains a certain deadening politeness to Rice-Oxley's songcraft, it is usually redeemed by warm-blooded humanity and winning honesty. Keane know their limitations. Love them or loathe them, they make polished arena-rock with an unashamedly huge heart.