One of the reasons we listen to music is because it provides a vehicle for expressing feelings that would otherwise go unexpressed. Rage, passion, fear, anxiety: the screeches and flows, beats and blats of music help give shape to the rhetoric of our emotions, offering not only a language for their articulation, but also a pulse. And extremely, at that. Music is best when it’s gone too far—too vengeful, too regretful, too jubilant, too insane, too incoherent.
If Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol is too something, it’s too polite. His voice has a quavering, hopeless apologia to it, even when at its most fierce; it’s exactly the tenor and velocity to almost always sound as if he’s saying “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”. Indeed, Lightbody’s perpetual repentance is what made so much of the Reindeer Section—a Scottish supergroup where he offered the lion’s share of the male vocals—such a wonder. As this reviewer’s introduction to Snow Patrol, I couldn’t wait to see what how his singing—breathy, poetic, as listlessly radiant as a sleeping beauty—would fare in its own material.
Well. Final Straw—the third full-length from Snow Patrol but their first with a proper US release—isn’t the material I’d hoped. Instead of banking on Lightbody’s ability to ooze quiet desperation, Final Straw often tries to pump up the volume and kick out the jams, resulting in a strange mix of brazenness and reserve.
The peculiarities which thereby ensue are many. First, Snow Patrol sound terribly awkward when they play loud and fast. In fact, they sound like a band that doesn’t entirely like playing fast, or loud, or “rockingly” in any fashion. So when they do it, it sounds incredibly underwhelming—a combination of bored and restrained, as if they’re playing out for an audience full of nuns in a library multi-purpose room. On top of this, the licks, hooks, riffs, and beats are more often than not completely by the book. “Wow”, the album’s second track, does anything but as it charges, candidly but not altogether convincingly, toward mainstream rock grandeur. The song’s big trick—fading out Lightbody’s vocals so they’re raw, unpolished and un-mic-ed—robs the tune of its one artifact of unique beauty (although, truth be told, his exasperated croon is ruined here by too much powerful guitar distortion). And the same gimmick is trotted out on “Spitting Games”, where it unfortunately takes the sheen off the vocals and betrays how less-than-perfect they might sound without proper production.
This color-by-numbers approach to music also bares itself in the lyricism, which sometimes is appreciable, genuinely frank observation (“All these places feel like home” from “Chocolate” or “Say the first thing that comes into your head when you see me” from “Wow”) but other times is speech too plain to be put to music, like the songs were badly in need of an editor’s critical pen (“Is there a t-shirt I can wear?/ ‘cause I’m soaking, look at me” from “Tiny Little Fractures” or “This blanket is freezing/ It’s been out in the hall” from “How to Be Dead”).
The album thankfully takes a turn for the better in its middle, with “Chocolate” marrying the straightforward poetics and unpretentious sonics to sweet, shuddering effect. On this track, the pounding 1-2-3-4 of the drums (maybe the easiest drum part ever written) work to drive home the song’s bittersweet, passively aggressive message—a clever match to glockenspiel and a lyrical delivery that seems to ask for forgiveness as it demands. This song also does right by keeping the tempo toned down, giving Lightbody’s expression and the melodic lines space to grow. The slower, prettier songs sit toward the album’s midsection and end (the easy and lush “Run”, the orchestral “Grazed Knees” and downcast, digitally augmented “Ways & Means”)—a melancholy shift that allows the album to gracefully ease toward a close.
Still. These forays into fast and furious scrape some of the sheen off even the album’s better tracks, like finding out that the neighborhood Good Samaritan once tried to push his grandma down the stairs. Snow Patrol can’t help but be earnest in all their musical pursuits—so they are equally earnest about being soft, sweet, and slow as they are about being loud, overcharged, and tedious. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been one to listen to music because I’m feeling too boring.