Review: Keane’s “Perfect Symmetry”

Oct 17, 2008 1:11pm

Four years ago, when the British band Keane first started making waves, they had a hook.  They had a minimalist approach featuring vocalist Tom Chaplin, pianist Tim Rice-Oxley and drummer Richard Hughes.  It was an approach which worked well for them, spawning a handful of hit singles, including “Somewhere Only We Know.” Two years later, they returned on “Under the Iron Sea.”  On that album, there were hints of sonic expansion into the guitar realm, but the change seemed appropriate.  That album’s lead single, “Is It Any Wonder?” was (and still is) their best quality single to date.  The rest of the disc built well on and expanded the footprint set by their debut.  “Perfect Symmetry” comes unfortunately as an unwelcome shock.  Not only have they fully expanded into full band mode, they’ve brought up the schlock-level as well.  No longer do they sound unique and fresh.  Half the time, they sound like a poor impression of the Killers.  (When I say that, I don’t mean the exciting Killers from “Hot Fuss,” I mean the droned-down, washed-out, awful arena-rock Killers of “Sam’s Town.”)  The other half of the time they sound like U2 imitators. (When I say that, I don’t mean the vital, exciting U2 of “War,” or even “Achtung Baby!” I mean the tired, syrup-soaked balladry of “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.”  Think about something like “City of Blinding Lights.”)   The mighty fall is staggering. It just makes the members of Keane look like lame followers.  How sad it is to know that they are capable of so much more.  The strange change starts right away at the beginning of the opener, “Spiralling.”  Disco “woo-hoos,” and a loud drum mixed with a truly skuzzy guitar-line announce that this really is not the band you remember. It recalls the eighties in the cheesiest of ways.  In 1984, this might have been cool, but not now. It lacks the appropriate amount of winking irony to be taken seriously.  “The Lovers Are Losing” sounds more like the Keane we used to know, but it also sounds like the above-referenced Killers.  Chaplin is doing his best Brandon Flowers impression over a stale, new-wave-ballad backdrop.  It sounds like Keane’s answer to “When You Were Young.”  It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s not that great, either. “Better Than This” shamefully rips off the warped piano sound of David Bowie’s hit “Ashes to Ashes,” before Chaplin bursts into an overly-dramatic vocal tone.  As he quickly jumps back and forth from a high, annoying yet somehow admittedly impressive falsetto, it brings to mind overwrought bands like the Darkness.  Truly, perhaps the only person in the whole rock era who could get away with such theatrics was Freddie Mercury.  Chaplin is a skilled singer, but he is no Freddie Mercury and Keane is no Queen.  The song recovers slightly from the beating it gets during the verse portion by delivering an enjoyable chorus, but sadly the damage is already done.  The keyboard part that sounds like a mix between a banjo and a harpsichord doesn’t help things.  Neither does the quick “Whoa-hoa-oh” passage. “You Haven’t Told Me Anything” verges on almost being cool with its drum-machines, rusty new-wave guitars and its clever synths.  In truth, this advancement actually works for them. The album’s title-track is next, and it’s a pretty but forgettable piano ballad.  It sounds more like the band’s old sound but something about it sounds generic until some exciting melodic detours.  Once again, however, I’m reminded again of the ghost of the Killers’ “Sam’s Town,” which as a source, should not be imitated. “You Don’t See Me” finds the band in their U2 realm.  Chaplin, sounding exactly like Bono, sings over a hushed backdrop.  Rice-Oxley’s piano tinkers away, as if to bring to mind the great Irish band’s ballad-heavy recent work.  It sounds heavily recycled. “Again and Again” is another tired example of new-wave revivalism.  So many other bands are doing this now.  While it does possess a classic-Keane-style tune, drenching the song in synths and guitars almost drowns it.  There are touches of Duran Duran here.  It’s a comparison I didn’t think I’d ever catch myself making. “Playing Along” again recalls the softer side of U2, but there’s hope here. There are hints of soulfulness and some interestingly atmospheric Brit-pop guitar accents. Overall the song has an appealingly exciting and unpredictable quality.  When the guitars unexpectedly pump up in back of Chaplin and he sings, “I’m going to turn up the volume,” for the first time throughout the album’s duration, I’m right there with him on that sentiment.        
“Pretend That You’re Alone” finds Chaplin singing about the monkey-human connection and ridding ourselves of society-imposed restrictions over a bouncy, piano-infused beat.  It too is surprisingly appealing, but it’s vaguely reminiscent of the band James and James would’ve done it better.  (If you want proof, give a listen to their latest album, “Hey Ma.”) Chaplin just has a very Tim Booth-ian sense in his delivery here.  “Black Burning Heart” swells up amidst a layer of fading-in synths.  Again, when the new-wave style beat comes in, Chaplin sounds more like Bono than ever.  In a swelling, pop-driven track, he sings like he knows this is a hit.  Yes, it is anthemic, but there’s something easily hollow about it too.  A spoken French interlude is just an odd side-trip.  At the same time, it is possible that this track could please fans of the band’s older work,  “Love is the End” closes the album with a beat reminiscent of a cocktail-jazz waltz.  The track’s minimalism is refreshing.  So much of the album is soaked in layers and layers of instrumentation that this seemingly bare moment is surprisingly revolutionary!  Chaplin is actually allowed to shine a vocalist the way he should. The whole album should’ve been like this song.  Finally, at last, when it’s just about to end, we get rewarded with something perfect.  “Perfect Symmetry” is also available in a double disc deluxe edition. The bonus disc contains all 11 songs in their initial demo form.  This makes for an interesting listen because you get to hear how the songs evolved.  Sometimes a key has changed or an instrumental part is missing.  Sometimes, these bare, early renderings are better in their stripped down state.  This is not as great an album as it could’ve been, so by packaging the demos along with the finished product, the band is at times almost giving the listeners a site map as to where things all went wrong.  In a way, that makes the deluxe edition the essential version of the album.  As an album, “Perfect Symmetry” is very back-loaded.  Its weakest tracks are right up front, spanning most of the album.  If you listen long enough there are small rewards, thus making the album’s title surprisingly ironic.  This record is anything but perfect or symmetrical.  Perhaps on their fourth album, Keane’s ultimate vision will be better and more boldly executed.  In the meantime, this record for the most part is sadly disappointing. 

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