When Keane broke into the scene with 2004’s Hopes and Fears, they were lambasted with significant hauteur1 (and rightly so, in some ways) for being a bland Coldplay clone. And yet, the album was full of solid toe-tappers. I confess that I gave it a few listens and liked it well enough, even if it fell far short of my Top Ten list for that year.
There’s only two things a Coldplay clone can do with a sophomore album: one, they experiment like Leaves’ The Angela Test—indeed, upon hearing the opening bits of “Atlantic,” I thought perhaps I was about to be treated to something along the lines of “Shakma (Drunken Starlit Sky)—or they throw together another album of toe-tappers that is materially the same as the first but noticeably less satisfying in experience.
“Atlantic” had me excited: though hardly a musical meisterwerk, the way its haunting chord progressions and singer Tom Chaplin’s pained vocals (excepting the rather trite lyrics—”I don’t wanna be old and sleep alone // An empty house is not a home // I don’t wanna be old and feel afraid”) segue into the cooing refrain is exhilarating. Unfortunately, this is not a tactic that marks the rest of the album.
From the zippy “Is It Any Wonder?” to the phlegmatic closer “Frog Prince,” the rest of Under the Iron Sea tastes like disposable arena pop—not painful to listen to, but utterly unremarkable in any sense. Tom Chaplin’s efforts with voice don’t push any boundaries or even vary from his usual upper-range anthem-style crowing. Pianist Tim Oxley-Rice is good at his instrument, but never even attempts to come to the fore like his fellow-in-imitation Matthew Bellamy (of Muse fame, who occasionally rocks out on his ivories) or his supposed forebear Chris Martin (of Coldplay, whose piano is often predominant, esp. live). The album hits a low point in the title track, a short, pretentious attempt at an instrumental which is actually just an ambient segue into the next (bad) song. I suppose they thought that instrumental tracks were High Art or something, but given the decidedly unexceptional buildup to that “High Art,” it ends up being a deliciously disappointing bit of irony instead.
Some people accuse Keane of being a Radiohead clone, which I think is unfair: imitating Radiohead would require some vestiges of postmodern prog and an attempt at the strange nontraditional quality that has always imbued Radiohead’s material. Keane’s latest album, despite its good start, never ventures outside of its safe, circumscribed radio pop sphere. If it’s any consolation to them, I thought that Coldplay’s 2005 offering of X&Y and Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations both failed to differentiate themselves, as well, so perhaps this latest round of British poprock is just a bad one for everybody.
That being said, I think I can say with some decisiveness that the best aspect of Keane’s latest album is the cover art.