Hopes & Fears

There was something in the water in 2004. Not every year delivers even one classic debut album; 2004 was serving them up like it was going out of style. Hot Fuss; Franz Ferdinand; Funeral; Bows + Arrows; The College Dropout. Not all of those albums have aged well, but they all left an indelible mark on music, and most of them delivered at least one iconic hit – the kind of deathless single that will live on forever and ever on wedding dancefloor playlists or supermarket sound systems. I have, at one time or another, loved all of those albums. But in 2004 proper, if you’d have asked me which brand-new artist I was most excited to follow over the course of their career, I would have answered Keane, and I’d have done it without hesitation.

Keane were never going to be cool. They were pitched as the heirs apparent to Coldplay, which is probably a pretty big “strike one” for most tastemakers. They also made big, grandiose soft rock that wore its heart on its sleeve; there was no wit or irony here, just uber-emotional songs about unrequited love and the pains of growing up. Probably fair to call that strike two. And perhaps least cool of all, Keane were a rock band with no guitars. Even Coldplay, as wussy as their reputation would suggest they were, still had songs with Big Ass Guitars. Keane were a three-piece with a singer, a drummer, and a keyboardist, and the pianos were front and center in every single song. Do I even need to say it? Strike three; get outta here!

While those three things may have caused a lot of people to turn their noses up at Keane, though, they were all extremely attractive to 14-year-old me – especially the piano thing. Growing up, I wanted to play the guitar. I was the classic “raised on rock music” kid, who thought there was absolutely nothing cooler than a person standing on a stage and playing a guitar extremely well. In an alternate universe, maybe someone gives me a guitar for my 14th birthday and I devote my entire life to mastering it. In this universe, though, I spent my childhood suffering a form of eczema that caused my hands – and especially my fingertips – to dry out, crack, and bleed. My fingers were such a problem that I couldn’t hold a pencil the normal way growing up, much less try to play an instrument notorious for tearing up your fingers. And so, I learned to play piano instead. That sometimes hurt, too, and I definitely bled on the keys once or twice (the things we do for our art!) but it was a hell of a lot easier than trying to push down metal strings.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a guitar for my 14th birthday. What I did get was a copy of Keane’s Hopes & Fears.

Seeing Keane emerge and turn into a big fucking deal was, for Craig the piano player, a formative moment. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of piano’s status as a rock ‘n’ roll instrument; I’d obviously heard my parents listening to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and Elton John over the years, or my brother listening to Ben Folds Five, or the likes of Five for Fighting or (again) Coldplay playing on the radio. But Keane coming up just as I was starting to take ownership of my own musical journey was different somehow. Maybe it’s because it felt like I was discovering them for myself; maybe I just liked the songs better. Whatever the reason, when “Somewhere Only We Know” started cropping up on radio playlists and in TV commercials, it sent a message I’d never really heeded from any other music before: You could play piano and still become a rock star.

I’d been taking piano lessons for five or six years at that point, but I’d never invested my heart into it. I dutifully practiced every day, and I took on the classical pieces that my teachers assigned me, but there wasn’t much passion there. Hearing Keane got me thinking about piano in a different way. Soon, I was bringing my own ideas into piano lessons, taking pop and rock songs in and telling my teachers that this was what I wanted to learn. And before long, I was learning how to play and sing at the same time. I never did learn “Somewhere Only We Know,” the big single that made Keane go supernova, but I tried my hand at a few other Keane songs: Hopes & Fears ballads like “Bedshaped” or “We Might as Well Be Strangers,” or bright, catchy b-sides like “Snowed Under.” I loved those songs and came to love them even more as I got inside of them and learned how they worked.

That’s the great thing about Hopes & Fears: Every single song just works as its own immaculately well-constructed, tightly-wound bit of machinery. Take the way “Somewhere Only We Know” blooms into this luscious hook that sounds like a chorus, only for that hook to end up being a pre-chorus refrain that gets dwarfed by the scope of the actual chorus. It’s like a monster movie where there’s always a bigger beast coming in the next scene, except in “Somewhere Only We Know,” there’s always a bigger, grander melody hiding just around the corner.

The single was not the only song with that kind of uber-satisfying build and release. Listen to the way “We Might As Well Be Strangers” seems like it’s going to just build and build forever, only to retreat into this beautifully resigned little outro that breaks your heart more than any extra bit of crescendo ever could. Or the way the bridge on “She Has No Time” ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels of heartache, before the entire thing crashes away like a thunderstorm burning itself out. Or the way “On a Day Like Today,” a song that inexplicably didn’t even make the U.S. version of the album (don’t worry, it’s there on the British track listing and on every vinyl release) spirals around itself like an entrancing little dance of piano and voice that could go on forever and ever and you might not mind.

Keane got dismissed for writing sappy, unchallenging piano ballads, but that’s only because Tim Rice-Oxley – the band’s keyboardist and primary songwriter – had such a knack for building perfect pop songs. The songs on Hopes & Fears make so many choices that are pleasing to the ear that you could easily mistake them for simple or shallow. In truth, Rice-Oxley was just such a smart melodic craftsman that he knew how to make all the hard things sound easy. He excels here at crafting memorable verse melodies, escalating to more memorable pre-choruses, giving the payoff in a big chorus, and then fading the songs out with these gorgeous little outros that just make you want to press play again.

The other thing that makes Rice-Oxley’s songs sound effortless is vocalist Tom Chaplin, who boasts a crystal-clear choirboy tenor voice that simply soars on every beautifully big chorus. Part Bono-style wail, part Chris Martin-esque falsetto, part Jeff Buckley-ish operatic range, Chaplin’s voice lends so much shape, emotion, and force to these songs that it was no wonder when Keane were earning immediate comparisons to stadium rock acts. There were a lot of bands in the early 2000s that sounded like they were gunning for the big rooms, from Coldplay to Embrace to Snow Patrol to Arcade Fire, but none of those band’s had a voice like Chaplin’s that could so thoroughly fill any room.

In that sense, Keane were maybe more comparable to another British band that ended up playing in the big leagues: Oasis. Noel Gallagher brought the songs, but it was his brother Liam who had the iconic voice – the voice that was going to allow those songs to take over the world. With Keane, Rice-Oxley was the architect, but Chaplin was the voice, and neither would have worked without the other. Rice-Oxley went on to write songs for other artists, including Lily Allen and – oddly – Gwen Stefani, but his work never had the same magic without Chaplin there to send the choruses heavenward. And while Chaplin’s 2016 solo album The Wave was perfectly nice, the songs lacked that electric melodic crackle that you get on Rice-Oxley compositions like “Bend and Break” and “Your Eyes Open.” You needed the two of them together for their gifts to really shine.

The Rice-Oxley/Chaplin partnership never clicked quite as well after this album. On the follow-up, 2006’s Under the Iron Sea, the band shifted gears in a darker direction that brought in everything from moody soundscapes to Achtung Baby-style pop. I love that album, but the alchemy is slightly off. It’s even more off on 2008’s Perfect Symmetry, a bizarre half-and-half mix between soaring arena rock and kitschy ‘80s-style synth-pop; the former works a lot better than the latter. The closest Keane ever got to recapturing the magic of their debut was eight years later, on 2012’s underrated Elton John hat-tip Strangeland, and by then, a lot of people had stopped paying attention. The band didn’t even make another record until 2019’s middling Cause & Effect, and new music doesn’t seem to be a priority as they embark upon the 20-year tour for Hopes & Fears.

You can’t really blame them: Like a lot of other 2004 debut acts, Keane’s legacy will always be defined by the music they made first. Franz Ferdinand will always be “Take Me Out” and then everything else. The Walkmen will always be “The Rat” and then everything else. The Killers built a long, storied career and a massive fanbase, but their story always winds back to “Mr. Brightside.” As for Keane, most people will always know them as the band that made “Somewhere Only We Know” – a song that, 20 years on, feels like a genuine songbook classic, on both sides of the pond.

My Keane story always comes back to Hopes & Fears too, but not because of commercial performance or iconic songs, or even because the later albums aren’t as good. When I listen back to this record now, it’s like someone’s opened a direct line back to the person I was in 2004. Back then, I was right in the midst of my most musically formative time, reveling in a million new discoveries and losing myself in a crop of albums – Hot Fuss, Franz Ferdinand, Funeral, Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, Green Day’s American Idiot, Butch Walker’s Letters, U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and two or three dozen others ­– that would come to form the bedrock of my music taste.

Hopes & Fears was one of the most important bricks in that mortar, an album I received as a birthday gift that November and then proceeded to play every single day for the entire winter. It came to be one of the most important documents of my coming-of-age. If you had asked me that January or February, I would probably have pointed to Hopes & Fears as my favorite album of all time. It just seemed to capture so perfectly what I was feeling at the time: adolescent longing, crushing loneliness, the butterflies of a half-formed romance, and the sense that everybody and everything around me was changing. That year marked the end of a chapter in my life, my eighth and final year at the school where I’d grown up and met all my friends. Soon, it would be on to a new school, a new group of friends, a new life. When I listen to songs like “Everybody’s Changing,” I think of those people and that place, and I can’t help but feel a wave of sweet nostalgia for something golden that felt like it lasted forever – right up until the moment it was gone.