Recorded at Tim Rice-Oxley’s own Sea Fog Studios in the band’s youthful stomping grounds of East Sussex, England, the set is produced by Keane with assistance from English producer Dan Grech-Marguerat, best known for his previous work with the likes of Moby, Howling Bells, and The Kooks.
The title, for starters, is creatively deceptive on several counts. On first look, one might think it indicates a musical change-up, perhaps something even more diverse than Symmetry was – but the sounds here are actually a throwback of sorts to the audio ambiance of earlier Keane. And it’s not really a strange land, either – most of the songs are written from the perspective of “can you go home again,” with a myriad of painterly references to places and specifics of the familiar Sussex area where the band members grew up. What the album is is unabashedly heartfelt, from singer Tom Chaplin’s swoony, soaring vocals to Rice-Oxley’s deft, pretty piano work; from Richard Hughes confident drumming to newest member Jesse Quin’s reassuring, solid presence on bass.
Speaking of reassuring, that’s another good word for the songs on Strangeland. While the band went through the expected breakthrough-band insecurities on Hopes and Fears – and later had a bit of unfortunate turmoil to work through via the tracks of the darker Under the Iron Sea – Strangeland finds them self-assured, in songcraft (the hooks here are just as strong as ever), friendship, and delivery. It’s uplifting to see a band that’s worked so diligently and steadily continuing to maximize their talents.
So – on to the songs themselves.
“We Are Young” opens the set, with Rice-Oxley’s distinctive piano patterns propelled by snare and hi-hat as Chaplin encourages a significant other to not give up (a recurring and introspective theme throughout the album.) First single “Silenced by the Night” is next up, and it’s apparent why it was chosen as such – with its immediately-recognisable chiming intro and tires-on-the-road bass line, it perfectly captures the road trip feel depicted in the song’s lyrics, and yes, will stick in your head for days, as well.
“Disconnected” changes things around for a few moments with a slightly spooky feel – the only track on the album that finds Chaplin singing in a lower register (not something he utilises too often, so it’s a striking difference when he does) – and also only one of two songs on the set that are directly relatable to another artist, in this case Roxy Music. (The other being “Black Rain,” which, whether intentional or not, carries heavy echoes of Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” along with some impressive falsetto work by Chaplin.)
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the tearjerkers – this is Keane, after all, and if they aren’t tugging on your heartstrings at some point, then you’re probably not actually listening. “Watch How You Go” will have you reaching for the tissues on the first verse, as Chaplin wishes a sad farewell to a departing love (“I wish that I could be your journey’s end/but you are only passing through”) – it’s romantic and melancholy and encapsulates what so many fans appreciate about Keane’s ability to translate universal emotions into their catchy Brit-pop songs.
“The Sovereign Light Café” is nostagic, too, but in a more charmingly winsome fashion. Singing directly of the Bexhill seashore and several of its landmarks, this is the musical tale of an older and wiser band returning home, having learned how to perfectly capture in music and lyrics the feel of their earlier times there, watching the sun set over the sea and hanging out in the local arcade.
“On the Road” and “The Starting Line” follow each other on the tracklisting, and are kind of companion pieces. “…Road” is perhaps the most energetic track on the set (and is another travelling song) while “…Line” opens with the sounds of a modernised music box, and will speak musically to anyone who’s gone through a discouraging time in their lives.
“Day Will Come” and “In Your Own Time” also manage to, well, hold their own within the album, with “Day…” nicely capturing an echo of the band’s Symmetry experimentations on a more subtle level. But it’s the closer, “Sea Fog” – presumably named after Rice-Oxley’s studio – that’s the perfect ending to this beautifully cohesive, emotional set, with its thoughful, wistful vocal and piano elements blending nature, regret, and pure pop music into another standout Keane ballad.
Is it a particularly groundbreaking or innovative album? One would have to say no – that was Symmetry’s lot in the Keane discography, after all. But what’s effective is the depth of feeling that’s woven throughout each song, and the poise of the (now quartet of) band members as they take a musical chance to look back on where they’ve been and where they’ve travelled since their beginning-band Sussex days. It’s not only lovely, well-performed music, but it’s also going to be relatable to anyone who’s ever left home, dreamt of leaving home, or have been, gone, and returned – and that pretty much speaks to all of us. Well done, Keane. – Kristi Kates
Keane’s Strangeland will be in-stores May 7th in the UK and May 8th in the U.S.
Special thanks to Universal/Interscope for our advance copy.