After a seven-year sabbatical, Gary Lightbody and co return with an emotionally unflinching album that deals with human connection in a digital era. Sam Lambeth reviews.
“It shouldn’t have to be so fucking hard,” spits Gary Lightbody, barely two minutes into Snow Patrol’s long-awaited seventh album. He sounds surprised and frustrated, but then again, when have the Northern Irish band ever made it easy? Over a career spanning twenty years, they toiled and struggled as an angular indie outfit before mass acclaim was finally bestowed upon them in 2003. Then, after 2011’s electro-drenched damp squib Fallen Empires, Lightbody fell into a seemingly bottomless pit of writer’s block and alcohol consumption.
In that time since, the world of alternative rock has moved on. The bighearted symptoms that defined Snow Patrol’s finest work – the arms-aloft emoting of Chasing Cars, the let’s save the human race sloganeering of Run, the stroppy distortion of Hands Open – are now considered too grandiose, too generic, too glum.
Out of the Wildness, though, comes renewed sense of purpose – pleasingly, their new LP is a grand, sweeping, brave record that doesn’t completely nullify Lightbody’s neuroses, but suggests they’ve got the nous and nerve to regain their relevance as they hit the ‘elder statesmen’ bracket.
Most impressive is the first track, Life on Earth, a gorgeously layered slice of musical grandeur befitting such an epic title. Ambient keys and fragmented synth melodies melt away underneath Lightbody’s distant, eerie vocals. The chorus sways into view underneath cascading drums, breathy backing vocals and a mournful acoustic motif. It’s the Snow Patrol you secretly admire but publicly befoul – that imitable brand of epic rock in its purest, most approachable sense.
Heal Me and Empress have flashes of familiarity, and while the random bleeps and bloops of the former feel like a bad case of gilding the lily, its punchy chorus recalls the jagged edges of Final Straw. A Dark Switch proves more intriguing, slithery strings and a punchy guitar riff blanketing Lightbody’s pleas of “oh hell, just give me all you got.” Meanwhile, the moody contemplations of A Youth Written In Fire are genuinely thrilling, a moment where the band’s noted love of U2 comes across without seeming ham-fisted.
Of course, there is an air of inevitability that Snow Patrol would one day release a song titled What If This Is All the Love You Ever Get? Despite its earnest verboseness sounding like it came out of a random Snow Patrol song generator, it’s surprisingly free of bombast. A skeletal elegy built solely on tender piano chords and Lightbody’s fragile baritone, its musical restraint and emotional yearning make it perfect for anyone longing for a sequel to the crushing You Could Be Happy.
As affable as Lightbody is, there are of course times where he overreaches. Wild Horses, for example, would have probably been best left inside the stable. Choosing a lead single would always be difficult, but the paunchy rasp of Don’t Give In still remains heart-sinkingly disappointing even within the context of the full record.
Wildness’ begs for human connection in an increasingly digitalised environment has given Snow Patrol renewed relevance, while their sweeping melancholia remains unrivalled. A little silliness alongside the wildness would go a long way, though.
Sam Lambeth is a journalist, writer and musician, born in the West Midlands but currently living in London. He performs in his own band, Quinn. He is on Twitter, and more of his work can be found on his archive.