Radiohead and Coldplay both followed up modest introductory records with albums that beefed up their sound, substance, and intent, and Keane obviously intends its sophomore album, Under The Iron Sea, to play in that league. The band recently re-introduced itself with the blistering, guitar-washed, ridiculously catchy single "Is It Any Wonder?", with its slightly dopey broken-heart lyrics and jet-fueled tempo. After its debut disc, Hopes And Fears—a collection of sweet, slight, and enormously popular piano ballads—Keane has come back wielding a rock-god hammer.
Call it a reaction to the flak Keane caught for the general wan-ness of Hopes And Fears. Pianist Tim Rice-Oxley doesn't write songs with as much rich nuance as his peers, but he does show an appealing directness and an unerring sense of melody—gifts that shouldn't be casually dismissed. Like the Hopes And Fears hits, the best songs on Under The Iron Sea are cannily constructed, and strongly delivered by lead singer Tom Chaplin. The teetering hook and promenade pace of "Nothing In My Way," the elegantly swooping vocals and gusting sound of "Leaving So Soon?", and the simple presentation and tricky structure of "Hamburg Song" all prove how satisfying slick, heartfelt rock can be.
But Rice-Oxley sells his gifts short too often by falling back on tritely positivist pap like "Put It Behind You" and "Try Again," and even Andy Green's electrifying production can't save pasty, interminable songs like "Crystal Ball," "Broken Toy," and (c'mon, now) "The Frog Prince." Under The Iron Sea is a better record than Hopes And Fears, and if it cements Keane's superstar status, that isn't so bad. Maybe success will give the band the confidence to take some more interesting chances on album three.