Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Seventeenth in the series is Keane’s strangely dark electronic album Perfect Symmetry.
Released: October 13, 2008
Yeah, Keane rode Coldplay‘s coattails hard. Using iTunes’ Genius feature on any Coldplay song will undoubtedly result in a playlist containing Keane’s weepy ballad “Somewhere Only We Know” shuffled in alongside Snow Patrol, Athlete (remember Athlete!?), and Bell X1. But just like Snow Patrol had defining characteristics that set them apart from Chris Martin and company, Keane had their own idiosyncracies- for better and for worse.
Though they were immensely popular in their homeland and scored a few big hits stateside, they were never critic’s darlings. It’s not for a lack of skill- it can be argued that Tim Rice-Oxley is technically a better piano player than Chris Martin, and the aforementioned “Somewhere Only We Know” is actually a fairly complex composition. A lot of the criticism aimed at the band is due to Tom Chaplin, the baby-faced choir boy frontman known to be a bit of a diva. For the first two records, there’d always been an air of upper class posh about him; an arrogance seeped into his lyrics in seemingly innocuous ways. Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody mined subterranean depths to express his emotions. Chris Martin used broad, expansive strokes to paint the canvas with his. Tom Chaplin just liked to show off how much better he was than his exes. Luckily- LUCKILY- the songs constructed around his petulance were good enough to make up for the occasionally haughty lyrics. Both Hopes and Fears and Under the Iron Sea were decent second tier Brit rock albums, even if they sounded remarkably similar.
Perfect Symmetry switched up the “pianos and keyboards” only formula by going full-on synth pop, and it’s a shame that the band’s reputation clouded the fact that they were one of the very first bands to do a straight up electronic album. This was three years before the big indie-pop explosion when everybody decided to do a dance record. It’s no big shock now if any band throws down a four-to-the-floor beat, but back in 2008 it was pretty weird that the lead single from these soaring balladeers’ new album sounded more like Human League than U2. “Spiralling” was a legitimate jam, the first of Keane’s songs (barring remixes) that would fit right at home in a club. It was also…kind of dark.
The lyrics were no longer “I’m so well-bred and smart so it doesn’t matter if you don’t love me”. They were now “I tried to make everything good but sometimes things don’t work out even though I am rich”. Tom Chaplin must have gone through some pretty rough stuff between 2006 and 2008, because it’s pretty weird when a banger like “Spiralling” comments on the Pyrrhic nature of fame and fortune. This is not an isolated case; the whole album’s lyrics hold some degree of heaviness. Fortunately the stylistic transformation tempers the thematic one, buoying the heavy parts with a varying selection of genre influences.
Even if it is an obvious swipe, “Better Than This” is an able homage to David Bowie‘s “Ashes to Ashes”, using funk-pop to tell the story of a dreamer whose plans at being a big star fell through. “The Lovers Are Losing” uses tarot card imagery over maximalist synth-pop to relay a similar sentiment. They’re both great songs, but it is a little confusing considering Keane were already successful at this point. Where did this Sisyphean attitude come from??
Up-tempo track “Again and Again” is the most directly bitter on the album, addressing a breakup that may or may not have been the cause of Chaplin’s bad mood. Ironically enough it’s the fastest song the band’s every put out, aping M83 and The Killers reasonably.
Not every track is driven by personal experience. “You Haven’t Told Me Anything” laments the monotonous nature of modern working life over new wave atmosphere, while the title track is a “what’s wrong with the world” song that would fit on either of Keane’s first two records if it wasn’t so nihilistic. Things get a little lighter on the determined “My Shadow”, which (in another bit of irony) starts off moody but bursts into a motivational anthem by the last third.
This all sounds like quite the bummer, but the band should be applauded not just for tackling uncomfortable subject matter but doing so in an accessible manner. Let’s hope that whatever was weighing on Chaplin’s mind is gone, but at least he was able to channel his dark times into some great tunes.