After their debut, Hopes and Fears, and its ubiquitous single “Somewhere Only We Know” pigeonholed Keane into the same AOR niche occupied by the likes of Daniel Powter and the Fray, the U.K. trio has spent the better part of six years raging against type. Comparisons to Coldplay have rarely meant to be flattering, and Keane has made a concerted effort to shake those tags. Sometimes those efforts have been successful: With its squelchy fake guitars and “Is it any wonder I’m tired” refrain, “Is It Any Wonder?” remains a terrific standalone single. But more often than not, Keane’s attempts to bulk up their sound have resulted in strident, try-hard records like their new Night Train EP.
Lest anyone doubt that Night Train finds the trio at their most dead-serious about muscling up, “Looking Back” is built on a no-shit sample of the Rocky fight theme. Were there any signifiers to indicate that the sample was meant to be ironic, that would be one thing, but played straight, it’s just howlingly awful. With a humorless guest verse by Canadian rapper K’Naan tacked on to no greater end, the only way to approach “Looking Back” is as pure camp, and even then it’s not really an entertaining listen.
The remainder of the EP fares somewhat better. It’s a risk to draw heavily from the ‘80s synth-pop of Perfect Symmetry, a middling album that alienated a sizable chunk of their fanbase, but that’s the tack Keane takes for most of Night Train. Attempting to make that style seem less dated, the band incorporates elements of hip-hop and dance on songs like “Back in Time” and “Clear Skies,” but these explorations don’t always work. The canned drum-machine backbeat on “Stop for a Minute” actually recalls some of the Backstreet Boys’s laughable “urban” singles. K’Naan’s rap over the bridge on that track is far superior to his other verse on the album, but rhymes like “Baby, you’re beautiful/From your crown to your cuticles” still aren’t strong enough to make “Minute” into anything the least bit progressive or interesting.
The set’s disco number, a cover of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself),” is easily the standout track. Featuring a delicately sung guest appearance by Japanese vocalist Tigarah, “Ishin” works because it puts the band’s keyboard-based sound into a fitting and at least somewhat contemporary context. If nothing else, the song is a welcome change of pace alongside deliberately retro tracks like “Your Love,” which sounds like the background music from literally every Brat Pack movie.
Stylistically, these heavy-handed production choices represent a clear, deliberate departure for Keane. While it’s admirable that an established act continues to challenge itself and its audience, Night Train derails due to a lack of the hooks and melodies that made anyone listen to Keane in the first place. The record comes across as less of a change in direction than a full-on identity crisis.