Fire in the Belly
On Keane, Bryan Scary and Keeping the Flame Alight

I was a philosophy minor in college.

Philosophy, as anyone who has studied it will tell you, is utterly fascinating and completely useless. My philosophy classes helped shape my thinking on a lot of different subjects, but I’ve yet to use anything I learned in them for any practical purpose whatsoever. I was a communications major, too, so in a lot of ways, I went to college to learn to think and talk.

Anyway, one of the courses I remember vividly was called Philosophy of Gender. It was basically an examination of gender tropes, with not as much emphasis on debunking of those tropes as I would have liked. One of the books I was forced to claw my way through was called Fire in the Belly, by Sam Keen. It essentially imagines the perfect male archetype, mainly by breaking up every human trait into male and female boxes.

That “fire in the belly” of the title is that spark that drives men forward. It’s also a handy phrase to illustrate something relatively intangible in the music world, an energy and creative force exhibited by only the hungriest of bands and artists. I borrowed that usage from Marillion’s song “King”: “They call you a genius, ‘cause you’re easier to sell, but the fire in your belly that gave you the songs is suddenly gone…”

It’s surprising to me how easy it is to pinpoint the moment in so many bands’ lives when the fire in the belly goes out. It’s not even a comment on the quality of the work – lots of artists go on to create perfectly fine records year after year, long after their flame has been extinguished. For me, fire in the belly means trying new things, exploring creative avenues you’ve yet to walk down. It means not being afraid to set the house you live in ablaze, just to see what will happen.

I’m using all this as preamble to talking about Keane, a band many believe never had that fire. I disagree, of course. I think Keane is one of the most exciting pop bands to emerge in the past 20 years. For one thing, they write remarkable songs – unfailingly melodic, full of graceful and surprising turns, big and bold and fearless. Anyone who thinks they’re milksops hasn’t listened to Under the Iron Sea, a startlingly abrasive and constantly searching record of recrimination disguised as a piano-pop singalong. I know few bands of Keane’s stature willing to jump from the synths-as-guitars stomp of “Is It Any Wonder” to the bare emotion of “Hamburg Song” to the disconnected jazz of “Broken Toy,” but they did it in style.

The members of Keane have defined themselves by their restlessness. They’ve never played it safe – after Iron Sea, they took a full-bore dive into ‘80s pop with the shimmering Perfect Symmetry, which was precisely the last thing anyone expected them to do. (The opening of “Spiralling” still surprises me, five years later.) Then on the Night Train EP, they went crazy – they enlisted rapper K’naan for two songs, covered a Japanese pop tune, and brought guitars to the forefront like never before. Oh, and two of the band members then decided to form a country act, Mt. Desolation, as a side project. This is pure, fearless creative drive.

So what, then, to make of Strangeland, Keane’s just-released fourth album? You could say that this collection of songs plays it safe, and heads back to basics. But it’s deeper than that, I think. Strangeland is like a visit to an alternate dimension, one in which Keane never took any risks. This parallel-Earth Keane responded to the success of their debut, Hopes and Fears, by making inferior copies of it year after year, until here we are – an album that sounds like old-school Keane, but contains little of the inspiration and imagination of their best work.

Strangeland is a deliberate attempt to make an inoffensive piano-pop album that will appeal to those masses who didn’t quite take to K’naan’s guest spots. It’s encouraging music for the middle of the road. It is exactly what Keane’s detractors think they have always offered. It is, without question, the blandest, safest album they have ever made.

And here is how I know Keane is a band worth following: it’s pretty damn good anyway.

Once you get past the idea that this is the kind of album they’ve decided to make, it becomes clear that they did it very well. There are 16 songs on the deluxe edition of Strangeland, and the quality is consistent throughout. These are good – not great, merely good – tunes, all of them. Even the worst of them, “Sovereign Light Café,” gets stuck in my head. The question isn’t whether this album is any good. It’s whether this is the kind of good album they should be making.

Take the first single, “Silenced By the Night.” It’s pretty simple, never straying from the few notes it lays down in the beginning. In a lot of ways, it never takes off – there’s a trademark Tom Chaplin “Ooo-ooh” near the end, but there’s no screaming detour of a bridge, no moment where the song heads for the stratosphere. But it’s marvelous anyway – Tim Rice-Oxley’s ascending and descending keyboard motif is lovely, and Chaplin sings the hell out of it, as always. It’s not special, and yet it is.

So much of Strangeland is like that. A few songs – “Disconnected,” “Day Will Come,” “In Your Own Time” – bring out the killer melodies, but even these are streamlined and buffed to a smooth sheen. “Watch How You Go” reminds me of the many sins of solo Paul McCartney, with its twee melody and borderline trite lyrics. (You won’t believe how well Chaplin sells this one, though.) “On the Road” is like old U2 filtered through old Coldplay, and features the simplest melody of any Keane song yet. But I’m singing it, and chair-dancing to it.

God knows I should hate a piece of blandly encouraging fluff like “The Starting Line,” but I never will. It’s very simple, very straightforward and regal, and finds Chaplin singing this: “Drag your heart up to the starting line, forget the ghosts that make you old before your time, it’s too easy to get left behind…” It is earnest to a fault, open-hearted to the point of mockery, and yet, it works for me. All of Strangeland is vaguely optimistic – even the breakup song, “Watch How You Go,” is more mournful than angry, Chaplin wishing his lost love the best.

And there are some gems in the back half, including the brooding “Black Rain,” the wistful closer “Sea Fog” (which contains a great Tom Chaplin moment), and “Day Will Come,” the song here that comes closest to the youthful energy of old. This is a very well-crafted album of decent songs, and I’m finding that I like it more with each listen.

But it’s missing that fire, that spark, that explosion of life that drove Keane’s previous efforts. Some may not even hear the difference – Keane has a reputation for soft-rocking their way through one bland hit after another, and the people who believe that will get 16 more bullets for that gun here. But I can hear it. This is Keane deliberately growing up and calming down. The fire in their belly is dwindling. I hope they decide to rekindle it.

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If you want creative fire, though, you won’t do any better lately than Bryan Scary’s new record, Daffy’s Elixir.

Bryan Scary is a pop wunderkind from Brooklyn, a guy with an insanely restless imagination and the chops to follow it wherever it leads. His jaw-droppingly good band is called The Shredding Tears, and they’ve made two twisty, exuberant, ear-popping albums and an equally stunning EP. I really have no idea who Scary’s music is for – there’s bits of Queen and Supertramp and ELO and high-concept prog and 1970s Elton John mixed in here, but mainly, it’s just crazy. Unfailingly melodic and brilliant, but crazy.

Scary is the kind of musician Kickstarter was made for. The campaign for Daffy’s Elixir raised more than $16,000, and he used that money to make something utterly uncompromising. The album is a 70-minute conceptual piece about a steampunk old west, and the people (and robots) who live there. It comes packaged in a hand-made book bound with string, featuring western-style drawings on parchment-type paper. There’s no doubt that everything about this record is the way he wanted it.

And it’s his magnum opus. The 15 songs on Daffy’s Elixir live in the same universe as Scary’s other work, but they’re miles beyond it. This album is so dense, so packed with delightful little moments, that it will take at least three listens to even map it out in your head. Scary eases you in with “The Wicked Frontier,” a loping piano-and-harmonies tune that sets the old west theme, and “Ziegfield Station,” the only thing here that might stand a chance at becoming a hit. After these two songs – which are both fantastic, by the way – the record takes off, and never touches down again.

There’s something new to catch your ear in every few seconds of “Cable Through Your Heart,” which darts from oscillating piano triplets to a quick-step shuffle to a harpsichord-and-choir interlude, ending up in a glorious chorus. Oh, and there are Mariachi horns and shimmering cellos, too. It’s a masterpiece, and Scary’s just getting warmed up. “Silver Lake Mining Company” marries its thudding, bass-heavy verses to a strummed, folksy chorus, which then melts into an orchestral bridge and a dirty guitar solo. “Diamonds” starts with some glorious harmonies over harpsichord, but by the time its five minutes and 41 seconds are up, it’s worked in a disco beat and some glammy touches worthy of Kevin Barnes.

And on it goes like that, never losing momentum, never failing to surprise. “You Might Be Caught in Tarantella” drifts from a Sleigh Bells parody to a soaring pop verse to a sprightly chorus with an absolutely infectious ukulele strum. “The Tale of Opal Dawn” brings that ukulele back for an uncommonly beautiful piece that brings Brian Wilson to mind – until it erupts into pure pop euphoria. “Owe Mister O,” concerning the ever-present villain of Daffy’s Elixir, glides in on a “Mr. Roboto” synth lick, but quickly turns into a foreboding (yet still utterly hummable) Jellyfish-style romp.

And far from petering out before the end of this 15-song behemoth, Daffy’s Elixir concludes with its most intense and complex number. “Data Mountain” is eight minutes long, and any one of those minutes packs enough in to make your head feel swimmy. When Scary kicks over the tables with a motion-blurred piano solo, you won’t be able to suppress the grin. And when the song ends with a massive grand finale, you’ll know you’ve heard something special.

There’s nary a second of Daffy’s Elixir that sounds phoned in, or created with anything but the purest joy of imagination. This is the fire I’m talking about – the will to make an epic monster of a record on your own terms, with no thought spared for anyone who doesn’t jump on board. This album is a phenomenon, a thing that should not be, a miracle of creation. It is… well, frankly, it’s awesome. You can hear the whole thing here, and buy it here, if you’re so inclined.

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Next week, the girls take over, with new records from Garbage, Best Coast and Beach House. I’ve also just learned that this year’s Cornerstone Festival will be the last. I’ll have more thoughts on that soon, beyond the inexpressible sadness I’m feeling right now.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.