Keane‘s Tom Chaplin is not the kind of guy you would expect to be in rehab for drugs and alcohol. His stage presence is mild at best, his music is mostly slow and calm, and his personal life is all but non-existent as tabloid fodder. Unlike his rehab contemporaries, he shows up to his gigs, behaves like a normal human being, and generally stays out of trouble. Hes no Amy Winehouse or Pete Doherty. But, were all human, and he proved that more people struggle with addiction than just the ones who are famous for destructive behavior. After nearly deciding to break up the band, he went to rehab for a few months in 2006 and emerged sober and more in tune with his bandmates.
The Tom Chaplin that emerged from his stint at the Priory Clinic seems much more carefree and happy than his pre-rehab self. This attitude carried on to the rest of the band as they regrouped and went on to release Perfect Symmetry, which was seen as a departure – in that it featured guitars for the first time in any Keane album, and was more synth-heavy than previous efforts. While the album received less than stellar reviews and was a disappointment compared to the massive success of their first two albums, it still went platinum in the U.K. and some critics praised their stylistic shift towards a more upbeat and poppy sound.
As the band toured behind Perfect Symmetry, they wrote and recorded the material that would eventually become the Night Train EP. The mini-album (eight songs spanning 30 minutes) continues Keanes foray into thicker pop music while going into even riskier territory by inviting Somalian rapper KNaan to contribute to two songs and collaborating with Japanese emcee Tigarah on another. While piano-band-collaborating-with-rappers is nothing new see Chris Martins collaborations with Jay-Z and Kanye West it never seems to work out as well in real life as it does on paper. Actually, it doesnt even look too good on paper to begin with but either way, Keane decided to go for it, and the results are exactly as youd imagine bad.
Night Train begins with an inconsequential but misguiding intro called House Lights that seems to set up a dark and moody album. Instead it segues into the complete opposite of that, the synthy and upbeat Back in Time, which turns out to be a decent showing of what this new Keane is all about. Its catchy and its got a big, synthy hook nothing earth shattering, but solid for what it is. Although, unfortunately it is not a song that gets better with time. While I didn’t mind it the first time, it became more grating with each successive listen. In any case, any hopes that could build from that song are quickly torn down with the first of two KNaan collabs Stop for a Minute. KNaan surprisingly doesnt sound too out of place among the stomping beat and bouncing synths, but the song just sounds watered down and manufactured specifically for radio airplay.
Clear Skies comes next, sounding like a throwback to the days when Keane could be upbeat without being overly poppy, but while it’s pleasant it’s also not very memorable. And just like before, any goodwill created by this song is once again dashed by the Tigarah-featuring Ishin Denshin (Youve Got to Help Yourself). This is the point where Keane loses all resemblance to its former self. This is bubblegum of the worst kind, cheesy and painful. The music and lyric battle over which is worse throughout the whole song. I had not lost all hope, as up until this point the songs alternated between tolerable and awful, and at this point I would have loved a tolerable song to come next. There was a chance that the song was only so bad because they were under the influence of Tigarah. But then, Keane proved they can do bad all by themselves. Keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley takes over lead vocals on Your Love, but its just as cheesy as ever, sounding like an 80s tribute gone awry.
By the time K’Naan’s second collaboration (“Looking Back”) arrived, I was ready to give up on the album. Opening the song with a sample of the Rocky theme song didn’t help. It just elicited a huge Liz Lemon eyeroll while I just waited for the song to end. Between the sample and the Rocky references in the song, Keane wanted this to be their own triumphant victory and thrilling climax of the album, but instead it just feels like Apollo Creed beat the living hell out of them and this is all they could muster out of the crushed shell of their former selves.
Once the song was over, I really wanted to ignore the fact that there was one more song left – I had totally given up. Maybe it was my exceedingly lowered expectations, but album closer “My Shadow” ended up being the best part of the album. They got back to the basics of what made them famous in the first place – simple and uplifting piano ballads. While regrettably sometimes venturing into The Fray’s territory, it is still much more welcome than the rest of the album.
While the fact that Keane tried to change their sound to accommodate their fans and not put out the same album again and again is commendable, “My Shadow” is a reminder that the reason they started with that formula in the first place is that it’s what works best for them. If they could get back to that, there might still be some decent material left in them. But in the end, Night Train is just a failed experiment from a band who is trying to reestablish themselves in a way that just isn’t flattering.