I didn’t realize how much I would miss Keane until they were gone.
I can still remember just about everything about my first listen through Hopes and Fears, Keane’s 2004 debut album (and still their most commercially successful effort). I don’t recall a lot of first listens, especially to first records, but this one captivated me from first note to last. At the time Keane was a trio – singer Tom Chaplin, pianist Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes – and their elegant, unfailingly melodic pop hit me exactly right.
As always with me, it was the songs I loved, from “Bend and Break” to “Everybody’s Changing” to “Sunshine” to the amazing “Bedshaped.” Sometimes when I listen to Hopes and Fears, I can still capture that initial rush of delight at finding something so beautifully realized, and at discovering a band that I knew I would follow for the rest of my days. And for the next eight years, I did just that – every two years or so, Keane would give me something new, and I would devour it. 2006’s Under the Iron Sea remains my favorite for its raw emotions and dark soundscapes, but Keane never made a record I didn’t like.
And then, after 2012’s more laid-back Strangeland, they went away. I should mention that I’d seen them live on every tour, thrilling at the fact that Chaplin can really sing like that on stage and admiring how seamlessly they integrated guitarist Jesse Quin for the Perfect Symmetry shows. Keane had been part of the fabric of my life for long enough that it truly hurt to see them fade away. It hurt even more to know that there had been more than the usual musical differences – Chaplin was working through some painful addictions that required an extended time away from music, as he detailed on his gorgeous solo album, The Wave.
I know I shouldn’t admit to loving this band quite as much as I do, but a world without Keane did take some getting used to for me. I get why people don’t like them – they’re straightforwardly and nakedly emotional, sometimes in ways that are even too much for me, and they’re the furthest thing from edgy. But to me Keane is a band constantly in search of the most beautiful thing they can create together, and part of that search is an unflinching honesty. Under the Iron Sea, for example, is made up of songs Rice-Oxley wrote about his frustrations and dark feelings toward Chaplin and his addictions, and Chaplin sings them. Any band that can survive something like that is, to me, worth championing, and worth much closer listens than most people offer them.
So of course I am over the moon that I no longer have to live in a world without Keane, and I’m absolutely in love with their fifth album, Cause and Effect. For a longtime fan like me, this album is revelatory – it is the most grown-up, world-weary record they have made, and you can feel the changes in their lives over the past seven years. It’s more than just the way Chaplin’s voice has matured, though there’s a new clear-eyed sense to his remarkably pure tone. It’s the way the band has become less adventurous, and at the same time more confident and complete. This is the most beautiful record these four guys could have made at this point in their lives, and while it’s more muted than their early work, it’s also exactly what it should be.
I’m not sure it was a choice, but Cause and Effect is almost entirely about Rice-Oxley’s 2012 divorce and its aftermath, and there’s a walk-through-the-world-alone sadness to the best material here. Some bands might have been self-conscious about leaving for seven years and returning with a sad record full of dark admissions and life lessons, but there’s no doubt every note and line here has been lived in. The wide-eyed innocence of “Somewhere Only We Know” is nowhere in evidence, but they’re the same band that wrote that song, and you can hear its echoes.
Basically, from the first electric piano notes of “You’re Not Home,” this record had me. The song is about the immediate aftermath of separation, when the person you loved is still all around you. “The click of the front door, your clothes left on the floor, bike wheels still turning where you left them on the back lawn…” Chaplin, of course, sings the hell out of this, and I can’t even tell you how grateful I am to have 11 new songs (13 with the bonus tracks) featuring his voice.
The band gets the radio singles out of the way early – both “Love Too Much” and “The Way I Feel” have that bright-music-sad-lyrics thing Keane does so well. “The Way I Feel” sounds like the Killers, as better critics than me have pointed out, and I like it, but I adore “Love Too Much.” “The purest dreams, they make us feel so high, when you’re falling down is when you feel most alive,” Chaplin sings over a lovely synth-and-piano foundation. This song is a latter-day-Keane classic, one of the best examples of their newfound clarity.
The rest of Cause and Effect slows down and aims for the heart. “Strange Room” hurts the way “Hamburg Song” hurt all those years ago. It digs deep into Rice-Oxley’s desolation: “For a moment I was dreaming we were just beginning, thought ‘finally I’ve come home, finally I’ve come home…’” It details his 2015 drunk driving arrest, and he includes a moment of lovely self-awareness as he talks to the officer: “I know what it looks like, a rich kid with a good life.” This one stays low-key, almost mantra-like, and though it builds, it never breaks open. It just breaks your heart.
“Stupid Things” is similar, full of details about Rice-Oxley’s relationship as he dissects it in his mind. “And now it’s little lies and alibis and the second phone, can’t make it home, I’m working late, you know I hate to miss the kids’ bedtime again…” This is the barest admission of his own wrongdoing, and it must be so strange for him to hear Chaplin sing it. “And I know that you know and we both just play along, just one more stupid thing that I have done…”
To me, the three-song stretch from “I’m Not Leaving” to “Chase the Night Away” is the heart of this record, and can stand with Keane’s best material. The lyrics are desperate and sad and lovely, from the dark chorus of the former (“Hold my hand, just like you used to do, I’m not leaving, throw it up, baby you’re all mixed up…”) to the brokenness of the latter, in which Rice-Oxley looks forward to a time when he can stop trying to rebuild.
But it’s “Thread” that has stayed with me the longest, and is perhaps the most honest of these songs. “All my life I won’t forget the pain in your eyes, I’m still scrubbing at the pain of this mess, wish you could understand the madness that grabbed at my throat and clung to my hands…” Of course the song itself is pretty and fragile, with a subtle string line, and Chaplin sings it like an angel. For some that will be its downfall – the songs on Cause and Effect are so lovely that they mask the anguish that pulses through them. To me that makes them sadder. Keane has moved me like few other bands, and on “Thread” they do it again. “Remember that I’m a good man, just not good enough…”
With all of this context, closer “I Need Your Love” seems more agonizing than romantic. Whether this is written to his ex-wife or to a new love, it comes across as yearning for fulfillment that Rice-Oxley will never find. “Let riches rain upon my head, these golden drugs, they’re not enough, I need your love,” Chaplin sings in his soaring voice, and if the pain of other songs here is disguised by their arrangements, this one is the epitome. It’s going to play like a Romeo and Juliet moment, a boy pleading with a girl to love him, and while it is that, it’s something more complex than that as well. It’s essentially the perfect closing song, cliched chorus and all.
In typical Keane fashion, the bonus songs are great too. “New Golden Age” should have been on the album proper. It sounds like picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, and it has one of the record’s best and most indelible choruses. “Difficult Year” isn’t quite as successful, but it as well makes for a fine conclusion: “It’s been a difficult year, I just wish we’d been together to face it…”
Yeah, this record hurts, but it also fills me with joy. I’m so glad to have this band back, especially if this is the type of honest, beautiful record their second act will bring us. In so many ways, Cause and Effect is exactly the right record for Keane to have made right now. It’s no one’s idea of a comeback record – it doesn’t storm the gates, announcing itself with bravado. Rather it patiently lets you into its darkest corners, offering up a difficult yet liberating look at brokenness. Keane’s best work has always done this, which is one reason it’s so good to hear from them again. I’m in love with Cause and Effect, and I think I will be for a long, long time.
That’s it for this week. This is my 950th column, and I’m glad I got to spend it writing about one of my favorite bands. Next week Brittany Howard’s solo debut, and a few other things. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.