"He's never made a bad album." It's a judgment more than one critic has offered on the occasion of Tommy Keene's eighth full-length, In the Late Bright.
But what about Keene himself? Looking back over a career that now spans more than three decades, does the 51-year-old singer-songwriter agree?
"I think I have made one, actually," Keene says. Via phone from his LA home, he admits he "cringes" when he listens to his first solo release, 1982's Strange Alliance. "To me it sounds like I'm 21 years old, trying to sound like Echo and the Bunnymen. I hadn't found my voice.
"And to add further insult to injury..." Keene adds with a laugh, "[2002's] The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down hasn't aged well. I think that's my least favorite record. Besides trying to write a seventeen-minute rock opera ("The Final Hour") — which I think was a failed attempt — I think it was a little too generic. I was playing it safe."
Keene's mix of modesty and honesty is characteristic. He's one of the few musicians whose coming out (he revealed he is gay three years ago) was announced with a shrug — and the explanation, "Nobody in the press ever just came out and asked."
However, the D.C.-raised Keene confesses that he's still in the "excited" stage about In the Late Bright. Released earlier this year on Michigan indie Second Motion, it's packed with plenty of the crunching, chiming power-pop that's made him a legend in those circles. But while the album is a testament to his consistency, several tracks do stand out, by virtue of the songs and the stories behind them.
One of them is disc-closer "Hide Your Eyes," a wistful ballad which takes Keene through almost his entire career, including one of its lowest points. The song had its genesis in 1984, prior to his major-label deal with Geffen, and was revived during the sessions for Keene's second (and last) Geffen album, Based on Happy Times.
At that time panicky label execs set Keene up with a number of cowriters, looking for what they hoped was a certain hit. One of them was Bryan Adams' lyricist. "Bryan Adams had some good songs, but the lyrics were incredibly awful," Keene remembers. "Luckily, that guy said, 'I don't have time,' or whatever. So he passed."
A writing session with Paul Westerberg of the then-hot Replacements seemed more promising. Keene brought in the idea for "Hide Your Eyes," but the pairing didn't yield a finished product. "He was into it, but nothing happened," Keene says. "I don't think he was used to sitting in a room and writing with someone. So then I dusted it off, finally, for this album."
One notable departure for Keene is "Elevated," a showcase for the guitar chops that have led Westerberg and Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard (with whom he recently recorded and toured) to seek him out as a collaborator. Keene explains that the swirling instrumental was inspired by another underrated guitarist who's a master of texture, Television's Tom Verlaine — although the inspiration was actually Keene's disappointment at Verlaine's 1992 instrumental set, Warm and Cool. "Tom Verlaine is like, the ultimate jazzy, atmospheric guitarist, so I was excited by that record," Keene says, "but it was really kind of boring."
Keene was so taken with his own response, though, that he recently enthused to an interviewer about doing a whole instrumental album, before catching himself with the cynical caveat: Who'd buy it? A fair point, but would he consider a digital release?
"Interesting...I really wouldn't know until this current record is done," Keene muses. "It just seems like a side project of a side project, though. You have to have a large enough audience to get a percentage of it, and the percentage of my audience who would like something like this would be pretty small." He has no plans to play "Elevated" on the current tour, either: "Nah, that'd just be me up there wanking off.
"I could play it, I guess," he adds reflectively. "But because my back catalog is pretty deep, for the first time, I'm really having a problem coming up with a set list."
Yet while Keene's oeuvre is filled with should've-been-hits that fans demand on tour, the brand-new "Save This Harmony" might be the most likely sounding smash of them all. A shimmering, gorgeous two-chord change, its potential is obvious on first listen — and Keene knows it, too. "I know which song you're gonna say," he says, before a question about it is even asked.
"I was incredibly excited all the way through the recording process," Keene says. "I had the feeling that, of any song I'd done in quite awhile, it was the most commercial, the most universal. It's such a simple, basic song, that if someone else did it, it could be a hit. To me, it sounds like a U2 ballad off one of their later records."
What's most revealing about "Save This Harmony," however, is the way that talking about it exposes the hopeful side of Keene, something his sharp sense of humor — honed by a string of record industry near-misses and misadventures — usually deflects.
"It's frustrating, because that's the song I'm kind of really counting on...my ace in the hole, to get picked up by a movie, or TV, or someone else covering it," he admits. "That's the only avenue that could be open to me, to turn this whole thing into something bigger and more productive."
But proof of just how productive Keene has already been may come soon, in the form of a two-disc "best-of" collection he's planning. The catch is getting permission to use material from his two '80s albums on Geffen — and, unfortunately, locating the missing masters to one of them, Based on Happy Times.
When his other Geffen release, 1986's Songs from the Film, was reissued by the label a dozen years later, Keene learned firsthand just how little care is often taken with big-label efforts that don't sell. "I was at the mastering place with the guy, and he said, 'Well, this is what they came up with.' And it was just this stack of tapes, unlabeled, and we had to go through them all," Keene recalls. "It was ridiculous."
That's not to say Keene was surprised. "[Geffen was] about as organized and effective as they are in every other fashion," he says, his tongue planted firmly back in cheek.
However, he isn't going to let those obstacles stand in the way of his retrospective. "If we can't find the stuff, then we'll just go from what we have," he says. "With or without their approval, we'll put something out."
In fact, surveying the current retrocentric pop landscape, Keene jokes that his time may have come at last.
"So the next big thing is jangle-pop of the early '80s, right? We've been through Joy Division and all the other stuff, and now we're to about 1983," he says, breaking into a laugh. "And I'm ready!"