Whether it was intended to be autobiographical in context or not, as a longtime Keene fan, I felt a poignant twinge when I first heard "Never Really Been Gone", track four on Isolation Party, in which he sings: "There was a time that I felt so jaded/Very overrated/There's a picture I've just begun to see."
Not that I often dabble in pop psychology, but this guy's been writing and recording stellar pop tunes for seventeen years now. At times it's probably felt like he's been doing it all for the music press, whose constant praise has yet to get the masses out to record stores to find out what all music geeks have known for years: Keene is the real thing.
Not only does Isolation Party keep his long-standing reputation for winsome songcraft and sharp guitar playing intact, it builds on it. It took me awhile to come to the conclusion that this is one of Keene's finest collections of tunes to date; the line started to seriously blur between "having" to listen and "wanting" to listen around spin number five or six. Easily a dozen or so plays beyond that now, the first four tracks are indelibly burned into my subconscious.
Given that this is pop (of the powered-up variety), it stands to reason that most of the subject matter is going to be centered around the fractious nature of relationships. Whether it's him (usually) or her (occasionally), someone is either hurting or fearful. But Keene has a clear understanding of the emotional stake for both parties. And while there are the times when he spends those three or four minutes in anguish ("Getting Out From Under You", "Waiting Without You"), more often than not there's a redemptive upside ("Long Time Missing", "Never Really Been Gone").
The only direct line between this record and the music most commonly dissected in these pages is via Wilco. Guitarist Jay Bennett, who briefly guested on Keene's last release, is all over this one (on bass, organ and guitar), while Jeff Tweedy adds backing vocals to a pair of songs. There's no twang to be found here, but that hardly diminishes the significance of this underappreciated artist.