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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

On "Dirt," Keane are true to themselves as they decry an all-too-familiar conflict

Their title track from last summer's EP has an unavoidable gravitas as it speaks to the fallout the innocent suffer from war.


There are certain musical acts that have the power to bring me back to my youth when I hear them, regardless of when the track in question is released. I've talked about a fair number of those acts already in this space, ranging from 1970s acts like Carole King and Earth, Wind & Fire to 2000s-borne stars such as Norah Jones and Coldplay. Today, I take a look at another one of those acts — one which shares a lot in common with Coldplay.


Thanks to songs like "Somewhere Only We Know," "Everybody's Changing," and "Is It Any Wonder?", Keane are a band I've known and appreciated for a very long time. Their piano-laden, post-Britpop sound put them on similar sonic footing to Coldplay — something which makes even more sense once you learn that Keane keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley is friends with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin going back to their days together at University College London, and that Martin even considered offering Rice-Oxley a spot in his own band before Keane broke through.


When Keane released their EP Dirt last summer, it only took a few seconds for the nostalgia to hit me thanks to the piano intro of its title track, "Dirt." The feeling only intensified as the song continued, and in the process I was internally reminded of why I've been a fan of their music for so long .

There's a certain melancholy to Keane's catalog that draws me in. On "Dirt," like on many of their songs, it begins with Rice-Oxley's piano playing. His chords have a weight to them in their forwardness and the way their middle range just rings out. Add Tom Chaplin's plaintive vocals, and even the most upbeat or hopeful Keane song has a darker emotional underpinning. This inherent weight is furthered on "Dirt" by the addition of the choral backing harmonies in the pre-chorus. They certainly add a density to the section by filling out the chords, but between the certain chords they sing, their placement in back of a descending vocal line from Chaplin, and their dignified choral nature, the whole section ends up being quite solemn. This mood was already present in the verse, and from the pre-chorus it persists through the duration of the track. Even when Jesse Quin and Richard Hughes enter on bass and drums, respectively; even as various members begin their backing harmonies; even when the guitar lines color subsequent verses, the musical weight cannot be lifted.


Of course, "Dirt" is also not an uplifting number based on the story it tells. Rice-Oxley and Chaplin's lyrical focus is, in the former's words, "an attempt to imagine the desperation of the innocent people caught up in violent conflict." Through lines mentioning the Middle East ("In a shop in Al-Medina / And a house in the old quarter / And I'll never sleep again") and the historic pathway to it ("Along the Silk Road the fires burn"), its narrative becomes an elegy to a storied way of life lost through the collateral of violence, often accelerated by outside sources. With Keane and the vast majority of their listeners being outsiders to the conflict themselves — spectators on a world stage through media outlets — the perspective is very sobering from the opening lines: "It’s market day when they bring the flood / Faster than our feet can run."


To me, Keane's avoidance of literally describing the conflict in their lyrics gives it even more power. Characterizing a barrage of bombs as a "flood" and a "[s]warm of angels from above" gives a particular image of the conflict as both cataclysmic and unnecessary. The savior complex implied by the 'angelic' characterization of the warring factions is satirical at its lightest and downright depressing and enslaving at its darkest. The aforementioned fires "[a]long the Silk Road... Where the seats of learning stood" speak to the destruction taking not just people, but relics of over a millennium of revered civilization and human progress. The lines that really bring it all home for me are the end of the bridge: "Centuries lived in these stones / I don't think you know." The destruction not just of homes, but also of shrines, places of worship, and ancient sites leads to an irreplaceable loss of culture. Memories may persist for a few generations, but without the physical monuments intact, stories of them will fade away with time. Furthermore, Chaplin inhabiting the perspective of someone caught in the conflict through his use of the first and second person makes the losses feel more real and emotionally damaging.


All of the above combines to make the chorus and its use of the title so impactful. In the aftermath of violence, "the dirt of memory" is all that's left. The prayers "for magic and another day," "for silence" and "for grace," go unanswered, and the pain in unnecessary loss only becomes greater with time. Their culture and way of life is "fading away," and further conflict and casual reminders are salt in an open wound, "rubbing [their] face" into the same dirt previous violent ventures have left behind. "Dirt" leaves us with the sad reality of this pervasive state of conflict and what it has taken away from innocent parties... and the emotion only becomes stronger when realizing that neither the band or us common listeners can do much, if anything, to change that. After all, music is a reactive art form in its construction — it lacks the ability to impart change, instead following and presenting perspectives of events. All we can do, then, is applaud how Keane approach the topic and sympathize with the subject of their narrative alongside them.

 

Postscript — a Coldplay parallel: Ever since I first heard "Dirt," I couldn't help but hear it as being similar to Coldplay's "Orphans," from their underrated 2019 record Everyday Life. Both songs focus on innocent victims of war in the Middle East, and even though "Orphans" is musically brighter, the tracks have a very similar emotional outlook.

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