Under the Iron Sea
U2 are now the most important (where “important” = “influential”) band in rock history, far out-stripping The Beatles in terms of their pernicious, all-permeating stranglehold over the platonic essence of “rock” whatever that is. If you’re in a band and want a career, you have to look at the U2 blueprint: the consistency of sound, the constant hedging of bets and consolidation of victories with repetitions of formula; that peculiar strain of anthemic, everyman songwriting that constantly steps to the borderline between ecclesiastical joy and money-laundering conservatism.
Rock is big business, and there’s not enough room for error if millions of dollars and pounds and yen are staked on records shifting units. And if there’s not enough room for error, there’s not enough room for trial either. Stock values are at risk. In the 60s and 70s there were half-a-dozen major record labels and they had no idea what pop or rock were, so they took chances, they let people record mad albums and throw them at the public to see what would stick. Forty years on from Revolver there are two major labels; their marketing, PR and A&R; departments “know” what the public “wants” and seek to give it them at every turn.
My theory about Keane is that they have been mercilessly shaped and targeted by their record label, primped and preened and pruned and pushed down corridors in directions they did not want to go in, all in the promise of success. The theory is that they will slowly wrestle back creative control, that the machinations of business and impositions of “people who know better” will drive them to revolt against their tethers and bonds, and, by their third, fourth, or fifth album, they will produce a masterpiece of unutterable, unsellable glory that will win the hearts of few and the ignorance of many, and get them dropped. I call this “The Talk Talk Paradigm.”
The problem is that I suspect that Intro #1 precludes Intro #2.
I do actually believe Intro #2 to be a possibility, as mad as it sounds given Keane’s common reputation amongst “music snobs.” It’s the reason I’ve been anticipating Under the Iron Sea, holding out hope of it being considerably better, more interesting, and deeper than their debut, the million-plus-selling Coldplay-sans-guitar indie-bed-wetting of Hopes and Fears.
The thing is that Keane aren’t really indie-bed-wetters, and neither are Coldplay. Yes, their music is on the maudlin side of energetic and lyrically they’re not espousing revolution, sex, and drugs, but to suggest that these are simpering, sexually-inadequate independent bands is insane—they are big, impenetrable rock behemoths. Their angst is a universal angst, a mild dissatisfaction and existential itch at the thought of once radical and creative ambitions being sacrificed in the name of security. It’s the melancholy of loading the dishwasher as the evening news informs you of a pensions crisis and you wonder if you’ll ever get time to write that novel you planned while an undergraduate. These thoughts are brought to you by the biggest record labels in the world.
Keane make a point of having “no guitars,” but that doesn’t stop them trawling the world for synthesizers that sound exactly like guitars. “Is It Any Wonder” is lashed with “guitars,” sounds like U2 to a powerful degree, is gifted with an awesome melody over the chorus, and is burdened with spite and regret at something. I hope it’s at the things Keane have been made to do and the compromises they have had to make.
“Atlantic,” some kind of “internet video single” or something last month, is painted in moody electronic hues, wants to be bitter, wants to be mysterious, wants to be dark and brooding. Is it? To a degree, but it’s all about degrees. Keane have talked up Under the Iron Sea (beautiful, modernistic cover; artwork conceits spread holistically to singles) as being bleaker, more raw than their debut album. It is about the things they have seen over the last two years, the problems, the horrors, the sin. But Keane have not been uncovering the carcases of napalmed babies for the last two years. They’ve been playing music.
Some songs—the textured instrumental “Iron Sea” or the Keats-by-way-of-Asimov “Bad Dream”—are ambitious. But then there’s dross like “Put It Behind You” and “Crystal Ball” and “Nothing in My Way”: repetitively melodic, flatly swooning, uninteresting. Why would you want to listen to a song like this all the way through, let alone repeatedly? You wouldn’t. It’s not “used” for listening. It’s music to ignore. It’s not real; you can’t touch it, you can’t sense the actual instruments, there’s no space, it doesn’t sound like music made by people. It has no worth except as anaesthetic to the horror of the world we live in, but it is a part of that horror.
I think Keane want to make a great record, something actually beautiful. What’s more, I think they’re capable of doing so. Someone once said that all that man desires are bread and circus games, but that’s not true: we want magic. We need it. This is a call to arms. Stop making rubbish records. Stop being weak and scared and conservative and easily-led. Stop consolidating and hedging bets. You will live to regret your future.