Thanks to Mumfordization, the ideals of folk have all but given way to its ridiculous and outdated aesthetic. The pure radical nature of voice and instrument has seemingly been replaced by major label honchos trying to construct the next twee, cutesy Icelandic bajillion piece band to dominate summer festivals or the next suspender-wearers to conquer the world one “Ho!” and “Hey!” at a time.
So you might understand why Ryan Keen and his debut album Room For Light are refreshing. Keen is a talented singer, songwriter and guitarist with solid songs and a nice backstory. Debates over authenticity in music can sometimes make the head spin, yet they’re actually important in Keen’s case; that he is authentic allows concentration on the music once all possible extra-curricular reasons to dislike him have been exhausted.
Keen doesn’t just dress like a 1920s working man; he actually displays the work ethic of one, which he’s proved by extensively touring his material. Indeed, at every turn, Keen passes the authenticity checklist. While one might reserve judgement on Keen’s choice of stage mates, which have included the boring likes of Ben Howard and Ed Sheeran, and a corporate partnership with Quiksilver clothing for the release of this album, Keen is an avid surfer. Moot point.
Most importantly, Keen’s music matches his image – or lack thereof. Rather than overcooked, his material is handled subtly by producer Dan Perry. And content-wise, these songs are less sentimental than indie-friendly artists of the ilk of, say, Ryan Adams or The Antlers. On second track Skin And Bones, Keen’s going for the inspirational, singing that “We’re not just skin and bones” and about the “fire in our soul”. While his not overly emotional voice is treated with sheen and, during the chorus, layers, his guitars aren’t given any extra effect; rather, the individual strings can be heard being picked. This music doesn’t sound live, and it shouldn’t: Skin And Bones is neither glitzy, nor manufactured studio spontaneity suggestive of a producer saying ‘Let’s go for the lo-fi sound!’; two opposite ends of the spectrum that too often seem like the only two recording and mixing options available.
Indeed, Keen has room to grow as a lyricist. But because he doesn’t suffer from the palm-in-face self aggrandizing ego of a Marcus Mumford, one wills him on to find more creative ways of saying what he says, and it’s likely that he will do so. Keen has clearly taken steps to refine his sound, and one would think that he will in time do the same with his lyrics. There are affecting moments on Room For Light evidence his potential. On Orelia, Keen forgoes the rhyme and sings “Fallin’ on my hands, again / Footprints in the sand… will fade,” an image that becomes stronger when dissected (footprints aren’t necessarily the result of a fall; either way, they’ll fade, as will handprints). But the words remain, says Keen. If he occasionally went for the jugular, saying that “words remain” would be biting; that Keen isn’t mean here is likely simply a reflection of himself.
There’s one song on Room For Light where it all particularly hits right. See Me Now is a standout track not just because it sounds like a way better version of Stereophonics’ Maybe Tomorrow, or perhaps a British interpretation of Air’s All I Need. Keen’s delivery is spitfire, appropriately emotive when the song calls for it (during the chorus), and soulfully raspy. The musical subtleties of Keen’s interpretation of heartbreak separate See Me Now from everything else on the album. But overall, Room For Light is a promising debut from a surefire talent with much potential for growth.