Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody doesn’t think much of greatest hits collections: “We couldn’t have a greatest hits at this point, because we only have a couple of (hits), and I hate those records anyway.” Protestations aside, Snow Patrol are a rather popular band at this point, and career-retrospective compilations are an unavoidable part of the major-label rock infrastructure that they’ve chosen to be a part of. For all of Lightbody’s artful self-deprecation and rock star faux-humility, this is a band that has mostly been embraced by the masses and has record-company clout behind them (for whatever that’s worth anymore). They’ve made their choice, and there are rules to this sport. If you want to ski on the pro hills, then you have to hit all the preset gates.
I have no interest in stretching the skiing analogies too far, but Snow Patrol is a band that wants to both be on the World Cup circuit and still carve off-trail when they feel like it. This made them a canny fit to open for U2 on Bono and Co.‘s latest massive stadium tour. The generic similarities are hardly worth noting at this point, but like U2, Snow Patrol seem to want to preserve a creative edge and push their musical boundaries while still selling huge numbers of records to fans who tend to prefer music that flatters their preconceived notions.
Many other fans have different preconceived notions to flatter, notions that make dismissing the Snow Patrols of the music world purely elementary. Easily disposed to sneer at anything resembling corporate rock and well-versed at pinning the cultural sins of fanbases on the artists who attract them, these observers are hardly swayed by Snow Patrol’s links to indie heroes like Belle & Sebastian and Martha Wainwright (who appears on “Set the Fire to the Third Bar”) or by Lightbody’s Sufjan Stevens shout-out in “Hands Open”. But the band turns the other cheek to these glib faceslappers: Up to Now is compiled just as much to persuade the established haters as it is to deepen the involvement of the casual bandwagon-jumpers.
The band includes its small cadre of minor anthems of upper-middle-class teen romance on the collection, of course. Consistently pigeonholed for their soapy balladry, Snow Patrol cannot deny the demand for their best-known singles “Crack the Shutters”, “Chasing Cars” and the mighty “Run”. But they brazenly broaden and contextualize the material they are constantly pilloried for. Downbeat live versions of both “Chasing Cars” and “Run” are included as well, featuring Lightbody in compelling vocal form as he strives against subtle string accompaniment to rehabilitate the bare emotion of the compositions. They take the opposite approach with the single version of “The Planets Bend Between Us”, which blithely turns an attractive whisper into an overwrought cry; rightly forgotten Spider-man 3 soundtrack contribution “Signal Fire” has much the same effect.
The remaining singles on Up To Now tend to be rockers and sing-alongs (“Take Back the City”, “Hands Open”, “Chocolate”, “Shut Your Eyes”, “You’re All I Have”), and the famously sappy side of Snow Patrol is further glossed over with the punky blasts of “Starfighter Pilot” and “Post Punk Progression”. Other choice cuts emphasize the lo-fi rustic beauty of their early work (“An Olive Grove Facing the Sun”, “Cartwheels”, “Fifteen Minutes Old”) or the occasional sonic experimentation the band fell to under producer Jacknife Lee, like the nervous breakbeats of A Hundred Million Suns stand-out “The Golden Floor” or the collection’s synth-heavy single “Just Say Yes”. There’s even an attempt at silliness with the inclusion of a cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”, which sparks an initial chuckle of recognition but soon after becomes more than a bit unfortunate.
Perhaps Up to Now will fail to convince Snow Patrol’s snobbish opponents of the band’s aesthetic worth, nor will it expand the sonic horizons of the girls who tittered when “Chasing Cars” came on the radio between Justin Timberlake singles. But this is less a traditional retrospective of the band’s oeuvre than it is an impassioned and varied argument for a wider reconsideration of that oeuvre. Lightbody’s apparent desire to avoid being another powder keg in the ongoing subcultural inter-skirmishes that define the current pop landscape may not be fulfilled, but he states his goal quite plainly. “Tell me that you’ll open your eyes,” Lightbody urges as his most dynamic composition, “Open Your Eyes”, reaches the astral swoons of its climax. Looking back and moving forward, all Snow Patrol are asking for from listeners of all stripes are open eyes, and open ears.