Back to the Future
Keane's '80s Trip is Pretty Much Perfect

So I once made this joke that we would see real Chinese democracy before we would see the long-delayed fifth Guns ‘n’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy.

Well, the Chinese are still stubbornly Communist, so I may have to eat my words. For weeks now, I’ve been hearing louder-than-usual rumblings that Chinese Democracy, after more than a dozen years, is actually going to surface next month. There have been at least half a dozen “confirmed” release dates for this thing, each one scrapped as Axl Rose continues to “tweak” his “masterpiece,” but I’m starting to believe that Sunday, November 23 is actually the date.

Why do I think so? Look. Billboard has announced the release date. So has Rolling Stone. The record is supposed to be an exclusive with Best Buy, oddly limiting its potential audience, and that store has released not only the track list, but the cover art. (Note that link lists November 25 as the release date. I guess nothing’s a sure bet…)

And of course, back in June, nine tracks leaked to the Web, and I swear, they sounded finished to me. But what do I know. Apparently Axl thought they were near enough to complete to sue the guy who leaked them, so… Still, Mr. Rose and company have been decidedly quiet through this storm of publicity.

Yes, according to Best Buy, the cover picture is a bicycle with a huge basket leaning against a spray-painted wall. It seems a surprisingly subdued image for such an operatic, over-the-top production like Democracy, which reportedly cost more than $13 million to finally finish up. But lo and behold, it’s another sign that this may be legit – Rose apparently has been talking about this cover concept since 2002. The picture was apparently snapped in China, so it’s, like, symbolic or something. But it looks like the real deal.

I’m not really sure how to feel about this. For about 10 years after Use Your Illusion in 1991, I eagerly anticipated a new Guns ‘n’ Roses album. Their debut, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, is still one of the best rock ‘n’ roll albums ever made, and the Illusion records (twin releases totaling about 150 minutes of music) were underrated and ambitious.

But in the intervening 17 years (!), Axl Rose has become the last Gunner standing, and Chinese Democracy clearly spiraled out of his control. The resulting record sounds to me like a disastrous explosion of ego, overcooked and half-baked, if you get my meaning. It’s strange to see this project actually quantified down to 14 tracks and a cover, and I will definitely buy it if it comes out. But I think it’s going to be awful, quite frankly.

On the bright side, though, if this thing actually comes out, we all get free Dr. Pepper. So that’s something.

* * * * *

It’s no secret that I love British trio Keane.

If it’s possible to love a band too much, then for me that band is Keane. (Along with a few others, of course.) Both of their first two albums – the grand Hopes and Fears and the grander Under the Iron Sea – are etched onto my mental retina. They write exactly the kind of big-hearted, confidently melodic pop music that I respond to most strongly, and I would have been perfectly happy if they’d continued down the same path forever, building on their Britpop sound again and again.

But the guys in Keane are clearly smarter than me. They know change is inevitable, and stagnation means death. And so their third album, Perfect Symmetry, is a radical departure from the first two – at least, upon first glance. And I admit, they had me worried.

About two months ago, the band released the first taste of Perfect Symmetry – the leadoff track, “Spiralling.” Now, I should point out that Keane has, to this point, been a pretty serious band. The songs on Hopes and Fears are earnest, full of wide open spaces, and Iron Sea added orchestration and a deep cover of darkness. Both albums tackled big themes with big songs, and as much as I love them, I wouldn’t recommend them for your next party mix.

So when I tell you that when I pushed play on “Spiralling” for the first time, my jaw dropped, I’m telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After a clip-clop percussion intro, the song proper starts with an exultant “Woo!” and a synth line right out of the Thompson Twins. It’s a full-on ‘80s throwback, Tim Rice-Oxley embracing the cheesiness of his keyboards, and singer Tom Chaplin even turning in a spoken word section. (“Did you want to be an icon? Did you want to be president?”)

It’s stunning. Beyond just the boldness of this direction, “Spiralling” is a great, great song. And it effectively sets the tone for Symmetry, a record drenched in that ‘80s pop sound. Everything you thought was Keane is effectively shuffled offstage to make room for a newly found sense of disposable fun. Hell, they’ve even done away with the whole guitar-less thing: Chaplin picks up a six-string, and though it’s most noticeable on the dance-pop tunes, it gets play on some of the slower epics too.

In short, this is a near-complete reinvention. Even “Spiralling” didn’t prepare me for the sprightly opening of “Better Than This,” with its David Bowie-in-a-thin-tie keyboards and handclaps. And all of “You Haven’t Told Me Anything” is a shocker, falling more in line with the Smiths than the current wave of Britpop. Chaplin, perhaps the best pure pop singer on the planet right now, unveils a slippery falsetto here that’s damn surprising at first, too.

I wouldn’t be surprised if your initial reaction is to wonder just what the hell happened to the dramatic pop trio you love. But keep listening, because while the surface has changed, everything essential about Keane is still here.

First and foremost, there are the songs. Keane songs are tight, unfailingly inventive melodic beasts, without an ounce of fat on them, and every one of Symmetry’s 11 numbers keeps that streak going. It’s most obvious on the more traditionally Keane-like tunes (“The Lovers Are Losing,” “Again and Again”), but just listen to the dynamic chorus of “You Haven’t Told Me Anything” and try not to sing along. I’ve said since the beginning that I’m waiting for Keane to write a song I don’t like, and I’m still waiting.

This album is a rocket, rushing by in a burst of melody, wrapping up in a tidy yet giddy 50:44, and it’s perfectly sequenced – a deep and moody epic like “Playing Along” is followed up with a bit of David Byrne-style funkery like “Pretend That You’re Alone,” and nothing outstays its welcome. Closer “Love is the End” is a classic Keane ballad – it starts small, it tickles you with its terrific melody, and it explodes into grand orchestration by the end. It’s the perfect finish, the longest thing here at 5:38, and it leaves me wanting more right away.

Next, there’s Chaplin. This guy is incredible. The vocal parts on Symmetry demand more of him than ever before, and he delivers. Just try singing along with the chorus of “Love is the End” and tell me how you do. “Better Than This” requires him to shoot up into falsetto at a moment’s notice, and he pulls it off. Even a seemingly simple tune like “You Don’t See Me” stands or falls on Chaplin’s voice, and he nails the “shining so bright” section at the end of the bridge. He’s at the top of his game, and if you came to Keane for his dazzling voice, you won’t be disappointed.

Everything the too-cool-for-school crowd hates about Keane is here, too, thank God. The lyrics are still wide-eyed and emotionally direct, the big themes still on the menu. The title track is almost a hippie manifesto, “Playing Along” is about the distractions that keep us from being engaged in the world, and “Spiralling” contains this little observation: “When we fall in love, we’re just falling in love with ourselves.”

Keane will never be cool. Hell, they’ve even missed the ‘80s revival bandwagon by a few years. But to my mind, no other modern band has incorporated these Reagan-era influences as earnestly and thoroughly as Keane. They will never be trendy, but they will always be honest – this is the music they make, regardless of how ridiculous it seems to those who won’t embrace it. There is nothing cool about Perfect Symmetry, but you can’t make this kind of album without jumping in, fully committed, and they have.

After a few listens, Perfect Symmetry just becomes another great Keane album. I quickly stopped fretting about what they’d taken away, and started loving what they’ve added – a loose sense of fun, a slinky soul that I didn’t even realize was missing. It may not be their best (but then again, it may be), but it is the one I’m most enjoying right now. It’s an absolute delight, from front to back.

What can I say? I love this band. While the dark Under the Iron Sea was a portrait of tension – I even thought it may be their last as a unit – Perfect Symmetry is a celebration, a sign that Keane is moving full speed ahead, looking back to the future. Long may they dream big, with their hearts firmly on their sleeves.

Next week, Copeland, Ray LaMontagne, and perhaps a few others. Oh, and there’s Happiness is the Road, which is reportedly winging its way to me across the ocean as we speak.

See you in line Tuesday morning.