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Reviewed by David Medsker
ALSO: Check out David Medsker’s interview with Keane pianist Tim Rice-Oxley.
It would make sense, then, that Keane would want to spread their wings on their third album. Their sophomore effort, Under the Iron Sea, expanded upon the themes of their sensitive debut, Hopes and Fears – even using a sound straight out of the Edge’s playbook for its first single, to bring the U2 analogy full circle – but was closer in spirit to the differences between Talk Talk’s The Party’s Over and It’s My Life than, say, Radiohead following Pablo Honey with The Bends. It was a good second step, but a measured one.
With the band’s third and latest album Perfect Symmetry, Keane appears ready to take off…but at what price? The dark chord progressions that pianist Tim Rice-Oxley can seemingly write in his sleep have been scrapped for sunnier skies, and while it makes for the bounciest songs Keane has done to date, there is an argument here against change for the sake of change. Good for them that they wanted to step outside of their comfort zone, but they would be wise not to ignore the things they can do better than anyone else.
One wonders how the 2004 Keane would have reacted to the sound of “Spiralling,” Symmetry’s first single. With its Amii Stewart/No Doubt-cribbing “Oooooooh!” vocals during the chorus, combined with a dirty guitar (yes, guitar) riff, this is clearly not your older sister’s Keane. Indeed, this might make for the first Keane song to receive a completely un-ironic dance remix. “Better Than This,” meanwhile, politely borrows both keyboard riff and drum track from David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashe.” The most startling thing about Perfect Symmetry, though, is its similarity to Queen’s work towards the end of Freddie Mercury’s life. “You Don’t See Me” has a bit of “These Are the Days of Our Lives” to it, while “Pretend That You’re Alone” sports a eerily accurate Mercury impression by singer Tom Chaplin. It’s curious that they would make songs that recall late-period Queen, but that, we suppose, is their prerogative.
The change from minor to major is not the only difference to Keane’s approach on Symmetry: those deceptively simple vocal melodies that anchored songs like “Atlantic” and “Is It Any Wonder?” are abandoned for busier, wordier verses. Witness the falsetto jumps in the verses of “Better Than This,” for example. Chaplin’s all over the place in the first two lines alone, whereas his entire vocal from “A Bad Dream” is a textbook lesson in economy. Perhaps the lyrics are to blame, as they jam-packed their songs like they were Jason Mraz. But is this a matter of expanding the lyrics because they had something to say, or doing it because it was a very un-Keane thing to do?
In a year’s time, when Keane’s affection for Perfect Symmetry has tempered a little, it will be interesting to see what lessons they take away from it when assembling album number four. If we’re lucky, they’ll remember that expanding your sound is about more – and less – than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and this album has the perfect example: the Jon Brion-produced “You Haven’t Told Me Anything.” They mess around with drum machines and guitars, but also drop a brilliantly simple vocal melody, and an even simpler Velcro-sticky guitar riff. Keane should be applauded for trying something new, but it’s also nice to dance with who brung ya now and then.