Deeper, Darker, Better
Keane Outdoes Their Debut With Under the Iron Sea

Radiohead played here in Chicago this week. As part of their show, they premiered a new song, presumably from their upcoming album. It’s called “All I Need,” and video from the show turned up online pretty quickly. You can find it if you look, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

It’s horrible.

It’s the same repetitive, dull, whoops-we-forgot-the-song-but-aren’t-the-textures-nice crap they’ve been doing since Kid A, and which I’d hoped they’d turned away from with Hail to the Thief. Perhaps this is just an early version, and the finished song will have a melody or something, but I doubt it. It’s possible, like many of their ardent supporters believe, that Radiohead is trying to say something beyond music, something about disconnection and alienation and other, like, really deep themes.

But if so, they’ve forgotten the music, which is to me the most important part. The Radiohead who made OK Computer could have coughed out “All I Need” in 30 seconds, and would probably have rejected it as too musically uninteresting. But the new model Radiohead has turned not trying very hard into an artistic statement – we are ambivalent about our fame, our place in popular culture, and of course, our music, they seem to be saying. And people keep eating it up.

I don’t get that. This may be an old-fashioned notion, but I want my favorite musicians to care about what they do. I want records that sound like their authors loved them, and worked on them and tweaked them and gave them every ounce of talent and creativity they had. If I don’t get the feeling just from listening to the album that the artist cares more about it than I ever could, then what’s the point? If the artist doesn’t care, why should I?

I love music that reaches, that yearns, that looks up an impossible mountain and tries its best to scale it. I would even go so far to say that any musician who doesn’t, when given the opportunity to make a record, aim for the sky and try to make The Best Fucking Album Ever is just wasting time. I hate having my time wasted. There are thousands upon thousands of great albums I will never hear. To me, great music should move you, and should be about much more than selling records or being part of some hipper-than-thou mass art project.

Above all, it should be about the music. My favorite artists are the ones who, each time out, say, “Here are 10 or 12 songs we love. We worked our asses off to make these the best songs we’ve ever done. We hope they change your life.”

And the best ones do.

Some time ago, I took a mental inventory of debut albums I enjoyed more than Keane’s stunning first record, Hopes and Fears. I came up with about three. Keane’s an easy target for the too-cool crowd – they are unfailingly romantic, they traffic in big, sweeping melodies, and they sound each time out like they’re trying to write the best pop song anyone’s ever heard. The cynics and critics who think that music should be alienating and obscure and About Something Important just can’t stomach their up-front and obvious search for classic pop beauty.

Thankfully, Keane themselves don’t care. Their second album, Under the Iron Sea, muddies the waters a bit with darker tones and shades, but in the end is an even better melodic tour de force than Hopes and Fears. It is an expansion in every way, a giant leap forward in both sound and song. Best of all, it is obvious from first note to last that the band knocked themselves out – this album is a labor of love, and why some critics are hearing bland, mass-marketed pabulum in the grooves of this fantastic record I will never know.

I’m sorry if I sound defensive here. Under the Iron Sea was greeted by an onslaught of negativity from the arbiters of indie-cool taste, most of whom, it seems, didn’t even listen to the album. “It’s Keane, they had a top 10 hit, they’re British and they use pianos, it must be crap,” they seem to have said. Somehow, they have missed the craft, the melodies, the arrangements – you know, the songs. I don’t know how, but they have.

That being the case, I want to offer the counter-argument, and talk about nothing but the songs.

Under the Iron Sea opens with two tracks that take the Keane formula, such as it is, and set it on fire. “Atlantic” is a deep, slow crawl that builds in menace and atmosphere, sounding very much like a gathering storm, until it breaks into a glorious Rufus Wainwright-esque melody in its second half. It’s a phenomenal tone-setter, Tim Rice-Oxley’s piano providing a base for layer upon layer of keyboard orchestration. This is the new Keane, deeper and more melancholy, and it explodes with the second track, “Is It Any Wonder,” a little bundle of energy and disillusionment.

These two songs also establish one of the most striking things about this album – the physical sound. It’s all Rice-Oxley, layering his keyboards over and over again, and putting his pianos through effects boxes, but you’d never know it. This album makes Hopes and Fears sound like a bunch of four-track demos, and nowhere is that more evident than on “Is It Any Wonder,” which will make you doubt the truth of the band’s no-guitars claim. It’s gritty and thick and powerful and just awesome.

Thankfully, the focus here is still on Tom Chaplin’s amazing voice, front and center as always. His voice is strong and clear, and able to connect even over the cacophony Rice-Oxley conjures. The third song, “Nothing In My Way,” is the first that is recognizably Keane, and the vocal melody just steals the show. The chorus is superb, and it’s one that Chaplin’s contemporaries, like Chris Martin, could not pull off. Chaplin’s voice is stronger, his control more exact, and the tricky intervals here require a singer who can really reach down and belt it out, not waver around the note and quiver.

But forget all that musician talk. These songs have terrific structures, and the performances are impeccable, but that’s not the point. “Nothing In My Way” is just a great tune, hooky and hummable, one that will take up residence in your skull after one listen. The whole album moves like a bullet, one great song after another, one remarkable melody making way for the next. “Leaving So Soon” sounds like it will be the fly in the ointment for a bit, but then the soaring falsetto chorus kicks in and it’s unstoppable. “A Bad Dream” is melancholy, but grand, and rises like a tidal wave.

And then there is “Hamburg Song,” debuted on the tour last year. It starts with an organ and Chaplin’s voice, and throughout, the band resists the temptation to pile on the production. They add subtle piano, a few cymbals, and that’s it. It is the prettiest song they have written, and they were smart enough to get out of its way. When Chaplin reaches the chorus (“Lay yourself down…”), it all comes together, and it’s beautiful.

Under the Iron Sea is most definitely a darker work than Hopes and Fears, the lyrics mainly concerned with dissolution and doubt. The band nearly broke up while making it, and there’s some speculation that the album is the modern Brit-pop equivalent of Rumours – all about the infighting. Specifically, many of these songs seem to be about Rice-Oxley’s anger towards Chaplin, and both “Leaving So Soon” and “Hamburg Song” work under that interpretation. If lines like “You take much more than I’d ever ask for” and “If you don’t need me, I don’t need you” are in fact about him, it takes great strength of character for Chaplin to sing them. But the beauty is that they work as songs about love and loss, too.

“Put It Behind You” is the record’s most optimistic track, and it bops along on a distorted piano Beatles groove until it hits (you guessed it) a great melodic chorus. “The Iron Sea” (not listed on the U.S. version of the album, but included at the end of “Put It Behind You”) is a nifty instrumental interlude that sounds like the incidental music in Das Boot, and it flows perfectly into “Crystal Ball,” perhaps the record’s finest track. My God, the melody on this one – it’s just a juggernaut. It is perhaps the most singable expression of doubt and despair you’ll ever hear, especially the knockout bridge: “I don’t know where I am, and I don’t really care, I look myself in the eye and there’s no one there…”

The final third is more experimental, and a bit weaker, but not much. “Try Again” is lovely, even though it steps the closest to Phil Collins territory. (It even has a Genesis-style keyboard ending.) “Broken Toy,” however, is a masterpiece – jazzy and hooky and sad: “I guess I’m a toy that is broken, I guess we’re just over now…” Dig the bass on this one, played by Rice-Oxley. It thumps and grooves over Richard Hughes’ percussive bedrock. And then check out the amazing distorted piano in the extended instrumental break. It’s a wonder no one has tried this kind of sound before.

Perhaps the record’s only real mistake is in sequencing “The Frog Prince” last. It’s not a bad song – it would be the best thing most bands ever recorded, but it’s an average piece for Keane, all rising melody and pounding piano. Hopes and Fears concluded with “Bedshaped,” a true grand finale, whereas this record just kind of ends. I like the twinkling music box coda, but it’s not enough of a reason to end with this one.

But hell, that’s the only real flaw I can find. Under the Iron Sea is wonderful, magnificent pop music, played with a wide-open earnestness that invites magic. As good as Keane’s debut was, I have heard very few second records that build upon the foundation of a first album as well as this one does, and no other records this year with the quantity and quality of extraordinary songs that this one offers. The naysayers may scoff at Keane’s big heart and unwavering belief in their own melodies, but to these ears, all that passion makes their work shine that much brighter.

If you couldn’t tell, I love Under the Iron Sea. It is the rare example of a band with much to offer actually deciding to offer it, rather than try to hide behind some image-conscious idea of what they’re supposed to be. It is also a rare case of an already brilliant band becoming even more so, and refusing to sit still. It’s an album I can listen to (and have listened to) again and again, and never be bored for a moment.

Most of all, though, I’m grateful that Chaplin, Rice-Oxley and Hughes stayed together, overcame their personal issues and finished this record, and I hope they remain together for many more. It plays like a postcard from the edge, despite its joyous melodies, and seems to depict a band with little grounding. I hope this is not the case, and that Under the Iron Sea will one day be seen as a launching pad rather than a last gasp. There are too many bad bands making too many bad records to lose one capable of making an album like this one.

So, summary. Under the Iron Sea is an even better album than Keane’s debut, a twisty, emotional ride through incredibly singable tales of disconnection and loneliness. It is easily one of the best albums of the year so far, if not the best, and I pity the cynics who can’t see past their own sense of ironic detachment and alienated cool and simply enjoy it. I will take something this delightfully melodic and smart over 100 Kid A-style Grand Artistic Statements any day of the week, and I will die a happier person, with a song in my heart. Albums like Under the Iron Sea just make life more worth living.

Is it really that good? You know what? It really is.

Next week, Guster and David Mead.

See you in line Tuesday morning.