Perfect Symmetry

Keane

Island, 2008

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/04/2008

I really should’ve loved this disc (the third from British pop darlings Keane). I wore out 2004’s anthemic Hopes And Fears and its follow-up, the darker, bitterer Under The Iron Sea, which raged as much as a piano-based, Coldplay-esque trio can.  Keane has always taken flak for sounding, well, boring, though they’re excellent at crafting atmospheric pop gems. Sounds a little like Coldplay’s dilemma, which resolved itself nicely with this year’s surprisingly full and punchy Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. As for Keane, they’ve tried with Perfect Symmetry to reinvent themselves into a tricked-out, synth-loving trio (with guitars finally thrown in), reminiscent of Tears For Fears (and a little bit of Queen) with its lively melodies and shiny new instrumentation.  So, did the transformation work?

Well, sort of. Starting off, lead single “Spiralling” is fantastic and slickly catchy, more pumped-up in these four minutes than Keane has been in their entire career. Co-produced by Jon Brion and Stuart Price, “Spiralling” departs from all the moody shimmer of their previous material, instead boasting some excellent ‘80s textures: thundering drum loops, hypnotic background “woohs,” and chunky keyboards. Things thankfully stay in this energetically electronic vein a little longer. “The Lovers Are Losing” rides in on strident synths and lead singer Tom Chaplin’s expansive vocals as he scrambles through octaves -- plus, there’s a lovely refrain, featuring some of the better lyrics on a disc that has a tendency to dip into empty clichés and Chaplin’s broad stabs at insight. “You Haven’t Told Me Anything” comes swathed in distortion and swerving electronic basslines, while  “Better Than This” is all jittery handclaps and piles of peppy instrumentation, fairly vague lyrically but it’s hard to mind with hooks this breezy. nbtc__dv_250

So far, so good -- until it starts to go bad. It’s always been easy to forgive Keane their lapses into cheesiness because they’re so earnest about it, and plus, the songs usually end up gorgeous enough to buoy some laughable lyrics. But Perfect Symmetry ends up being too top heavy, and after the shimmery, synthy material is over, you get stuff like the maudlin title track. “Perfect Symmetry” is over-the-top in every respect: Chaplin enunciates every syllable, draining emotion for all it’s worth, and he ends up turning potentially interesting images such as “Spineless dreamers, hide in churches / Pieces of pieces of rush hour buses / I dream in emails, worn-out phrases, mile after mile of just empty pages” into one massive symphonic blur, buried in layers of piano and strings and harmonies.

Each and every song has the same glossy approach, but even that grows tired after enough go-around, especially with the bland (and occasionally preachy) lyrics. Taken on their own, songs like the expansive, slow-burning  “You Don’t See Me” and “Again And Again” are decent, built around some slickly awesome riffs, but it’s hard to buy lines like,” Oh, truly we are a fortunate few / Who turn on your axis, revolve around you / All spinning outwards from your sun” or  ”The lightest words are heavy / And promises are easy / And no one's ever happy or sad for very long.” Far too often, Chaplin’s attempts at poetry and profundity just end up nonsensical, something that not even the glitziest of instrumentation can distract from. Even worse, when they revert back to their piano-based balladeering, like on the stripped-down “Black Burning Heart” and closer “Love Is The End,” it’s almost painfully plodding, lacking all the grace of Hopes And Fears’ standout moments as well as any of the liveliness they’ve found here.

Kudos to Keane for veering away from their signature sound. Moments of Perfect Symmetry are exhilarating, if not particularly groundbreaking. But it’s not definitely not enough to anchor an entire album, and instead of flaming out as bright as the energy of the initial songs would suggest, this disc just stumbles towards its close.

Rating: C

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