[16 May 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Even before Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody drops Sufjan Stevens’s name, you get a good idea of what Eyes Open is all about. Lightbody sums it up earlier in the same song, when he asks, “Why would I sabotage the best thing that I have?” For all his wet-eyed emoting, then, Lightbody is a bean counter at heart. Because on the evidence here, the best thing Lightbody has is the money that comes from a world-beating, surefire hit.
You can’t accuse all bands of selling out on the album that gets them popular. Take Snow Patrol, for example. After a couple DIY albums, they were dropped from an indie label, meaning that they sold no albums outside their immediate families and closest friends. So you can’t blame them for falling in line when major label Polydor gave them a second chance. For some bands, hired-gun producers, radio-friendly mixers, and power chords aren’t a sellout—they’re survival. Plus, 2004 breakthrough Final Straw was pretty good arena-friendly indie-rock, targeting mainstream tastes without sacrificing Lightbody’s vulnerability and stinging way with a lyric.
No, some bands sell out on the album after the one that gets them big. Because, at that point, they have the commercial capital to challenge themselves, their audience, even their label. Doing this doesn’t require an In Utero or Kid A, just some creative growth, the desire to peek around a new corner. Just ask the Flaming Lips. Lightbody, though, has turned tail and run toward the middle of the road… and past it.
Some people can’t stomach Woody Allen movies because they can’t watch without thinking of his personal life, however good the film may be. Eyes Open is far from a horrible album. It’s easy to listen to, it’s melodic, and it’s well-read. But you’re a strong (or naïve) listener if you can get past the calculation, the number-crunching, the crassness with which Lightbody has taken aim at the MySpace demographic. He might well be a Sufjan Stevens fan, but is it a coincidence that Stevens provides indie credibility and a name that plenty of “Friends” will actually recognize?
Maybe, just maybe, Lightbody merely noticed that “How to Be Dead” and “Spitting Games” were the two best songs on Final Straw, because most everything on Eyes Open attempts to rewrite them either lyrically, musically, or both. “You’re All I Have” is blissful enough, with its “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”-cribbing intro to the ooh ooh-ing and chugging guitars. But then, during the bridge, Lightbody gets stuck repeating the phrase “Gimmee a chance to hold on” four times in row, and you can almost feel him computing the radio-friendliness of his next move. “Beginning to Get to Me” swirls up some real tension, while “Finish Line” evokes a sort of washed-out euphoria. The music is professional, clean, and faceless. Try answering a question like, “What does Snow Patrol’s drummer sound like?”. Erm… ProTools?
The genuine moments are offset by tracks like “Chasing Cars”, which would probably be the result of programming “Alternative Power Ballad” into IBM’s Big Blue. It’s only a matter of time before this bit of treacle plays over the end credits of a Lindsay Lohan vehicle (This just in: right idea, wrong show: “Chasing Cars” has been placed on the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy). Even Lightbody’s lyrics seem to have been dumbed down. In place of a line like “Dr. Jekyll is wrestling Hyde / For my pride” from “How to Be Dead”, “Make This Go on Forever” offers this set of rhymes: not-got, should-could, fight-right, and long-wrong. And all this in service of a Britrock-by-numbers arrangement and over-the-top chorus that tries to be fatalistic but comes off like Andrew Lloyd Webber doing Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”.
Maybe this all sounds too cynical. But how much slack can you cut an album that comes with crowd singalongs already included (see “Shut Your Eyes”)? Lightbody’s supposed to be a humble, everyyoungman Belfastian. You might expect this sort of cold calculation from Robbie Williams or the Goo Goo Dolls. But Lightbody’s not Robbie Williams and Snow Patrol aren’t the Goo Goo Dolls. Yet.