For a time, Snow Patrol was the best part of a fairly stagnant period of rock music. It was out of the post-grunge Britpop phase of the late '90s that the clean, simple guitar rock of the 2000s emerged, spearheaded by Coldplay’s “Yellow” and the Fray’s “How To Save A Life.” There wasn’t much to it: throw together four chords, a piano and electric guitar, and some introspective lyrics sung by a decent impersonator of either Jeff Buckley’s angelesque falsetto or Liam Gallagher’s nasal crooning. Logic would dictate that an artist can’t put out more than an album or so of such formulaic music without sounding dully repetitive, but Snow Patrol defied this logic and proved just how simple great music can be. Now, over a decade after “Chasing Cars” defined a generation of young teens discovering alternative rock music for the first time, the Irish band has returned with the ambitious but calculated “Wildness.”
Over the past 10 years, lead singer Gary Lightbody has repeatedly described his struggle with writer’s block, which explains why “Wildness” took seven years to produce. But rather than feeling belabored as do many works that take so long to complete, this record benefits greatly from Snow Patrol and producer Jacknife Lee’s meticulous attention to detail.
Nowhere is this more evident than on lead track “Life On Earth.” At its core it’s another standard Snow Patrol song, led by a simple but effective acoustic riff reminiscent of early Coldplay. When the chorus kicks in, however, heavy drums, a movie soundtrack orchestra and passionate singing from Lightbody make this Snow Patrol’s most dramatic song yet. Lee’s production also injects the periodic electronic distortion that gave 2011’s “Fallen Empires” its unique sound. Combine all these elements and it’s easy to understand why the space voyage imagery of the music video feels so appropriate. Whatever creative struggles Lightbody had to encounter over the past seven years, it’s clear that “Life On Earth” is the breakthrough he needed.
The few songs that follow are the weakest on the record. “Don’t Give In,” “Heal Me” and “Empress” are tailor-made alternative anthems, and save for Lightbody’s crackly, Bono-esque falsetto on lead single “Don’t Give In,” they’re largely forgettable. Thankfully, however, things get interesting again with “A Dark Switch.” The swift acoustic strumming at the base of the song is complemented beautifully by more electric distortion and a fantastic string backing. Put simply, the track is a confident, multi-layered groove.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Snow Patrol album without a sappy piano ballad, and it doesn’t get more sappy than “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get.” The four chord piano ballad has been done so many times that it’s nearly impossible to pull one off without additional instrumentation or the voice of Adele—and Gary Lightbody is no Sam Smith. But despite the song’s clichéd nature, it displays Lightbody’s best vocals of his career. He’s always had that soft, aching-heart tone, but here he ambitiously hits a falsetto he’s never even attempted before. For a second there he sounds like James Blake, leaving much to be desired given how much more creative the music of Blake is than that of “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get.”
“A Youth Written In Fire” has the spirit of a Bastille song and contains more impressive singing from Lightbody. The pop style verses trade off with a dark chorus that builds in intensity to a thrilling climax. Like many of the album’s other tracks, every detail of this song is calculated precisely and executed masterfully. Snow Patrol are clearly veterans of the game, and it shows just as plainly on the even darker “Soon.” As the track builds, strings hauntingly streak in and out of tune, recalling the end of Radiohead’s “Daydreaming.”
“Wild Horses” is a nice blend of old and new Snow Patrol, recalling the grittiness of “Final Straw” while incorporating “Fallen Empire’s” percussive electronic work. Finally, Lightbody’s brilliant newfound falsetto shines again on “Life And Death,” and while it takes a bit too long to get going it’s a worthy album closer.
At a succinct 10 songs, “Wildness” suffers somewhat from its four weak tracks. The other six, however, are so mature and so expertly put together that it makes Snow Patrol’s seventh LP well worth the seven-year wait. The record is a late-career breakthrough for Snow Patrol, and represents an important creative step in the right direction.