Here’s a curious thing: Strangeland is the title of both the current album by Keane and the 2005 autobiography of Tracey Emin. Two more different products of English seaside towns than the polite piano-rockers and Britart’s unpredictable grande dame couldn’t be imagined. Perhaps the band wanted a bit of Trace’s grit to rub off, because something to get a real grip on was missing from this polished, crowd-pleasing performance.
Decent, dependable and self-deprecating, Keane are everything Britain celebrates about itself. Five albums and five UK number ones make an enviable commercial record. Songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley can hit a melodic sweet-spot like few others – “Silenced by the Night”, part of the encore here, progressed gorgeously. Yet for all the band’s superb craftsmanship, they lack the spark of the true original. “Everybody’s Changing”, from 2004, is one of their biggest anthems, yet the group change so little. The Bowie-indebted diversions that pepped up 2008’s Perfect Symmetry have seemingly been ditched.
Frontman Tom Chaplin strode out and immediately stood on a monitor as if he was about to preach or begin a PowerPoint presentation. His confident, Tim Booth-like tenor was the show’s focus. But he was more revealing than he possibly realised when recounting that a friend had told him Keane’s newest tracks could all “soundtrack a TV replay of a British athlete coming fourth” at the imminent London Olympics. It’s as if their songs often need to borrow specifics from elsewhere to strike home. All-purpose salves, they go for the universal without first establishing the particulars.
Clearly, it’s a popular formula, but it also dulls their edge. The stand-out tracks were those that gave us more detail, either musically or lyrically: “Neon River”, with its synths as hazy as hope; “On the Road”, barrelling along on Springsteen’s gasoline fumes; and “Sovereign Light Café”, an irresistible skitter down memory lane.
“I’m getting older I need something to rely on,” the band sang as early as their third single, “Somewhere Only We Know”. Declaimed by their adoring crowd at the climax of this and future shows, that fogeyish prophecy can only be increasingly fulfilled. Strangeland, really? In 2012, Keane and their fans are on utterly familiar ground.