[26 October 2008]
It’s a cruel fate (though not necessarily a rare one) for any band to have to watch as one of their weakest songs becomes their biggest hit. This is hardly the fault of the artist. The narcissistic demands of mainstream commercial radio precondition a sort of drugged mimesis in its potential champions, a self-justifying paradigm entirely disconnected from the dominant streams of aesthetic appreciation. The loose criteria that determines “hit” status is amorphous, mercurial and unstable, misapprehending origins and confusing means for ends.
For this reason, the knee-jerk distaste directed at an otherwise alternative-friendly act when a song of theirs is beamed out from corporate-branch radio stations across the known world is entirely misguided. Even if there is irrefutable evidence of blatant pandering to commercial convention, how is anyone to predict whether or not that convention will still be convention come the release date? Even if all the pieces fit together, mass success may not be assured. And sometimes, all the pieces fall into place in a way even the band may not expect or even intend.
This fate befell Snow Patrol in 2006. Following several years of fashionable obscurity as an undercard to Belle & Sebastian on the Scottish indie imprint Jeepster in the late ‘90s, the Northern Irish/Scottish modern-rockers had a modest breakthrough with their major label debut Final Straw in 2003. Three years later, the hitmaking primetime soap Grey’s Anatomy used “Chasing Cars”, the first US single from Eyes Open, in its season finale, and bam!—instant monster hit.
It would be more than a little disingenuous to claim that “Chasing Cars” was somehow unrepresentative of Snow Patrol’s chosen methodology. But it was definitely not that methodology’s ideal refinement. Often compared to fellow British swoon-rock giants Coldplay, Snow Patrol has a much more precise focus. Gary Lightbody’s finely-observed lyrics are a far cry from the scrubbed-up existential clichés preferred by Chris Martin. Lightbody is a romantic, but hardly a hopeless one; his words are sturdily poetic and subtly evocative, and he seems more interested in the commas and semicolons of relationships than in the exclamation marks that occupy most pop lyrics. “Chasing Cars”, while cut from the same cloth as the band’s previous, dramatic semi-hit “Run”, was much more invested in the exclamation marks, but it also had a static, squared-off quality to it. It was pretty enough, but it was sort of boring, not to mention distinctly ungenerous and self-involved (“just forget the world”). And, perhaps unfortunately, it will define Snow Patrol in the public consciousness for some time yet, if not for the rest of their careers.
So give Lightbody and his comrades enormous credit for purposely avoiding similarly proscribed expressions of their craft on A Hundred Million Suns, a smart hopscotch forward from Eyes Open. Super-producer Jacknife Lee returns to the booth he occupied for Snow Patrol’s past two releases and continues to define and refine their expansive sound. “If There’s a Rocket Tie Me to It” is a moodier kickoff than “You’re All I Have”, the instant power-pop anthem that opened Eyes Open. Lightbody’s sighing sensitivity as he winds a strand of his lover’s hair around his finger is borderline saccharine, but the delayed payoff is all the more effective when it arrives. “Crack the Shutters” is more conventional (and peters out abruptly) but similarly attuned to small, evocative romantic touches, not to mention outstandingly seductive.
The highlights keep flowing into each other. Lead single “Take Back the City” has a compelling double-chorus: first the stacks of aggressive triple-notes reminiscent of “Hands Open”, then the stadium-ready sing-along worthy of one-time tour-mates U2 (“I love the city tonight / I love the city always”). “Lifeboats” smoothly outdoes the aforementioned Coldplay’s trademarked mid-record mid-tempo exercises in sonic experimentation with aplomb, and “The Golden Floor” applies the skipping beats that Lee provided for Bloc Party’s Intimacy to another gorgeous refrain. “Engines” floats on an indelible melodic phrase, first vocalized then turned over to guitar, with Lightbody in fine form (“Use me forever / Use me for rocket fuel / I’ll be air / I’ll be fire”). “Please Just Take These Photos from My Hands” and “Disaster Button” are classic Snow Patrol rockers of maximum efficiency and impact.
If there’s a “Chasing Cars” moment on this album, it’s “The Planets Bend Between Us”. Though unquestionably softer and less tense, “Planets” manufactures many metric tons more pathos than that song about lying down. The chorus, telegraphed though it is, is beautiful anyway, with its pitch-perfect image of separation by an ocean: “I will race you to the waterside / And from the edge of Ireland shout out loud / So they could hear it in America / ‘It’s all for you’.” To parse the tableau beyond its obvious romantic yearning, it could also be a naked appeal to the American audience that embraced Lightbody as a sensitive, fuzzy Brit boyfriend but has seemed less amenable to his (more interesting) rock star leanings than his home market has. Either way, it’s just earnest enough to be entirely irresistible.
For a record that Lightbody has claimed would be more cheerful than previous efforts, A Hundred Million Suns’ tones are less dulcet and more doubtful. Perhaps doubt is hopeful in and of itself after the certainty of heartache that permeated Eyes Open, but even the minutely-detailed pain of the previous LP was redeemed with spectacular enlightenment in the grand climax of “Open Your Eyes”. There is nothing of a similarly comforting transcendent sweep lying in wait in the final minutes of A Hundred Million Suns. Instead, there’s “The Lightning Strike”, a 16-minute, three-movement celestial metaphor of operatic grandeur and overwhelming beauty. Linked together by alike synthesizer bedrocks of gradually increasing warmth and brightness, the song-cycle progresses from silver-lined dark clouds to hints of dawn before finally settling on a lovely, sun-drenched morning. But even when faced by such an inexorable process of hopefulness, Lightbody has to temper the surge of light: “Slowly the day breaks / Apart in our hands.” Whether or not this album contains a hit as massive as “Chasing Cars”, it’s a confident, balanced work of mass art with only extremely minor flaws. A record built for dusks and dawns in wide open spaces, wherever they may be found.