Album Review: Keane, “Under The Iron Sea” (2006)

I’ve honestly never paid much attention to Keane. Sure, I remember liking Everybody’s Changing and loving Somewhere Only We Know, but the band never really made it on my radar. Then, one day I passed their latest album, Under The Iron Sea, at Best Buy, and because it was on sale and I was in the mood for some new music, I picked it up. That was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.

Keane is comprised of lead vocalist Tom Chaplin, composer/pianist/bassist Tim Rice-Oxley, and drummer Richard Hughes. The band hails from England and is known for their piano-rock sound, but understand that they’re not just another Coldplay knockoff. Under The Iron Sea is a wonderful album, filled with thoughtful and well written lyrics, beautifully composed songs, and music that you’ll want to listen to over and over again.

The album begins with Atlantic, which opens with an almost sinister sounding melody composed of electric piano, bass, and drums. Chaplin’s vocals are finally introduced about a minute into the track, and the song’s ominous vibe remains despite the rather sentimental lyrics (“I hope all my days/Will be lit by your face/I hope all the years/Will hold tight our promises/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”). In addition to the beautiful melody and lyrics, Chaplin’s vocals are also a highlight; his tone is at all times great, and he sounds perfect in both his lower register and while singing in falsetto, as he does towards the end of the track. The song ends a bit abruptly, but is nonetheless a perfect opener for the album.

Next up is the lead single, Is It Any Wonder?. The song is already quite a departure from the one before it; loud synthesizers and electric guitar lead way to an upbeat and bouncy track that’s hard to forget. Though the focus this time around is more on the cheery sound, Rice-Oxley remains consistent in writing good lyrics (“Sometimes I get the feeling that/I’m stranded in the wrong time/Where love is just a lyric in a children’s rhyme”). Nothing In My Way is a mid-tempo track, with a lovely piano riff and a driving beat. The highlight of the song is a bridge about halfway through the track; the repetition of the lyrics and Chaplin’s vocals, paired with the backing music, makes for a perfect sound.

Leaving So Soon? follows and is another upbeat song. Chaplin returns to his falsetto and sounds particularly good during the choruses. The lyrics of having someone turn on you (“You’re leaving so soon/Never had a chance to bloom/But you were so quick/To change your tune/Don’t look back/If I’m a weight around your neck/’Cause if you don’t need me/Then I don’t need you”) manage to be biting without coming off as too bitter or whiny.

My favorite song on the album appears with A Bad Dream. The ballad starts off similarly to Atlantic, with a long instrumental (this time made up of synthesizers, electric piano, and drums), before fading into Chaplin’s vocals. The lyrics were based on W.B. Yeats’ poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, though I see the lyrics being symbolic of a dying friendship (“I wake up, it’s a bad dream/No one on my side/I was fighting/But I just feel too tired/To be fighting/Guess I’m not the fighting kind/Wouldn’t mind it/If you were by my side/But you’re long gone”). Either way, the song is one of the best on the album, from the haunting melody, and Chaplin’s emotional delivery, to the stirring and honest lyrics.

The dreary mood continues with Hamburg Song. A somber organ is highlighted throughout most of the song, and the lyrics are again expertly written and are definitely a big part of the track’s beauty (“I don’t wanna be adored/Don’t wanna be first in line/Or make myself heard/I’d like to bring a little light/To shine a light on your life/To make you feel loved…/I give much more/Than I’d ever ask for”). A gorgeous piano solo is also introduced towards the end of the track, which ends the song with a sleepy/dreamlike feeling.

The tempo immediately picks back up with Put It Behind You. Though the lyrics and melody aren’t particularly remarkable, the song is extremely catchy and you’ll most likely be humming it after a few listens. The song ends at about 3:35, and after a few seconds of silence, we are introduced to a “hidden track”, which is actually an instrumental piece titled The Iron Sea (this song isn’t included on the track listing on the American or UK versions of the album, though it is on the other international releases). The piece has an appropriately metallic sound to it, with electric piano and guitar being the main instruments, and an eerie sounding choir joining in towards the end of the song. Apparently the “iron sea” is a metaphoric name for the group’s anxiety over their uncertain future and sudden fame, and track definitely reflects those distressing feelings.

Keane2009

Things pick right back up with Crystal Ball, which is another light and fun song. The merry sound is a bit ironic given the subject matter (“I don’t know where I am/And I don’t really care/I look myself in the eye/There’s no-one there/I fall upon the earth/I call upon the air/But all I get is the same old vacant stare/Oh, crystal ball, crystal ball/Save us all, tell me life is beautiful”), though I’m sure the irony was intended. Again, the song is one that you’ll have trouble forgetting, and it’s clear at this point in the album that there aren’t really any bad songs to be found on the disc. Try Again follows, and is another mid-tempo treat. This time around Chaplin sings of having regret in a relationship and wishing to change things (“Why would I want to see you now?/To fix it up, make it up somehow…/What I was isn’t what I am/I’d change back but I don’t know if I can/Still I’ll try, try again, try again”), and his soft vocals sound extremely heartfelt and earnest. The hushed and simple piano melody works quite well, and the track might be one you’ll overlook during the first listens or so, but is really another gem.

I wasn’t planning on making any Coldplay comparisons, given the fact that I find both bands to be independently great, but the opening bars of Broken Toy do sound eerily similar to some of Coldplay’s stuff. Still, the song is another of the album’s best tracks. Chaplin again sings of a relationship that’s gone sour (“I think you know, because it’s old news/The people you love are hard to find/So I think if I were in your shoes/I would be kind/I look out for you/Come rain come shine/What good does it do?”) and despite the fact that the theme seems to be an on going one for the album, the material remains fresh, and the lyrics are still quite good.

The disc ends with The Frog Prince. The song is apparently about Johnny Borrell, the lead singer of Razorlight, which happens to be a rival band of sorts. Borrell supposedly made some negative statements about Keane on various occasions, and the song takes a fairytale-type look at Borrell’s ego (“You were our golden child/But the gentle and the mild/Inherit the earth, while/Your prince’s crown/Cracks and falls down/Your castle hollow and cold/You’ve wandered so far/From the person you are/Let go brother, let go/’Cause now we all know”). Heaving drumming and piano make up most of the sound, though the song ends quite sweetly with a twinkly music box-type riff, before fading out completely.

I wish I hadn’t have wrote off Keane so quickly in the past. At first glance (and perhaps even the first listen), the band may come off as just another British piano-rock band, but Under The Iron Sea proves that their talent is far deeper than that. Rice-Oxley’s songwriting, Chaplin’s vocals, and Hughes drumming together create a terrific band, and their talents have resulted in an extraordinary album that I’ll be listening to for years to come.

Rating: 5 stars

Track Listing
1. Atlantic
2. Is It Any Wonder?
3. Nothing In My Way
4. Leaving So Soon?
5. A Bad Dream
6. Hamburg Song
7. Put It Behind You
8. Crystal Ball
9. Try Again
10. Broken Toy
11. The Frog Prince

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVe_KVzBFOo]
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