Review Summary: On their first recording since the million-selling 2009 collection Up To Now, Snow Patrol sound leaden, unsure of their next move, and too stiff to change the style that they’ve used since the very beginning.
Snow Patrol’s lowest point as a band came just before the release of 2003’s Final Straw
, when they played to an audience of just 18 people at a strip club in High Wycombe. The venue was so small that the club’s management had to unscrew poles used by their dancers in order to make space for the band to play, and only the impregnable might of a single Walkers Crisp box with the words “VIP area” scrawled on its back separated concert-going patrons from the rest of the club. It was “one horrendous gig,” remembers drummer Jonny Quinn in an interview with What’s On Wales; “No wonder our agent had a particularly wide grin on his face when he told us about the show,” adds lead vocalist Gary Lightbody. Fortunately for the band, they were just weeks away from releasing their breakout single “Run”, which would soon cause the five-piece to find themselves being propelled at breakneck speed into the big leagues, where they have remained ever since. Given their difficult past, it would be reasonable to expect Snow Patrol to guard their hard-won success with a fevered zeal and a hint of dogged determination, yet their latest recording actually finds them doing the exact opposite. Fallen Empires
isn’t the sound of a band resigned to playing in pubs and bars, exactly, but as far as recent Snow Patrol records go, it is easily one of their weakest.
Much of Fallen Empires
’ failure has to do with the fact that it comes across as terribly anachronistic, with a significant portion of its sound having its foundations in an era which, at conservative estimate, passed us by a full decade ago. A quick glance at many of the band’s contemporaries – Coldplay, Travis, U2 – reveals that each embarked on a reinvention of their sound once they entered the mid-range of their career cycles, if only to prevent themselves from sounding trite once their old sound started getting stale. U2 ventured into European industrial music and techno with 1991’s Achtung Baby
and 1997’s Pop
, for instance, while Coldplay tapped into the zeitgeist of twinkle-pop and bluesy guitar riffs on Viva La Vida
. Snow Patrol, on the other hand, chose to content themselves with merely refining their brand of harmless, slow-burning tunes when they got to that same stage in their careers (which was about the time that they released Eyes Open
). They now find themselves having to play catch-up as a result. Somewhat paradoxically, there appears to be a surprising degree of latent awareness about it all within the band, almost as if they woke up one morning and suddenly realized that everybody had long since left the building. “Arcade Fire’s last record (The Suburbs
) made us realize that we had to up our game. It was amazing,” says Lightbody on his band’s official website, “We decided that we wanted to make a record unlike any other we’ve made before.” But like a sigh of belated regret rising from beyond the grave, Lightbody’s words only serve to frame the observation that his band may have dropped the ball one time too many, a fact which quickly becomes clear over the course of Fallen Empires
’ fourteen (!) chaotic attempts at an auditory revolution.
Opening track “I’ll Never Let Go”, for instance, is a messy, undirected mish-mash of half-hearted sampling and extremely rudimentary techno-mixed effects (the band refers to it as “full blown electro”; spoiler alert: it isn’t), that straddles the rut created by Lightbody’s all-too-familiar “oh-woooah!” refrains and his band’s trademark down-tuned guitar sound. In a bizarre display of hubris, Lightbody has already gone on record to dictate the effect that he would like his song to have on the masses: “I always see people walking off the dance floor when they play our records, we’re not that kind of band. “I’ll Never Let Go” might change that.” However, just listening to his dry, emotion-draining vocal delivery and the tedious time signature dominating proceedings quickly brings about the realization no one would probably ever mistake this for a song like “’Till The World Ends.” It’s the same deal with lead single “Called Out in the Dark”, which dry-humps a mediocre curlicue of synths and electro guitar riffs for all it’s worth. In the end, it’s hard to tell which one is worse: the sheer lack of appeal in Snow Patrol’s chosen direction or that it all comes across as terribly amateurish.
Elsewhere, the guest spots on Fallen Empires
also offer a clue to what may have went down behind the scenes during the creation of the record: American singer Lissie features on four tracks on the album (“I’ll Never Let Go”; “The Garden Rules”; “Those Distant Bells”; “The Weight of Love”). But while her warm, homey voice is capable of adding an extra dimension to almost any recording, the persistence at which she pops up on the album frequently lends to the sense that her magic is being overused, rendering the songs that she appears on to mere positions of utility. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe also makes a cameo appearance on the record, but tellingly, it is his influence rather than his intervention that brings out the best results, with the blatantly “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”-influenced “Berlin” being one of Fallen Empires
’ strongest and most reflective moments.
But like any other Snow Patrol album, Fallen Empires
is designed to revolve around the lyrics that form its gravitational center. Gary Lightbody has always been a wildly inconsistent wordsmith, which may be the reason why he’s been tolerable all this while, but Fallen Empires
sees him descend to his lowest all-time hit ratio. “This is all I ever wanted in life,” he muses emptily on the title-challenged “Life-ning”, before reeling off a bucket-list so trite it beggars belief. Elsewhere, “The Garden Rules” is irreparably punctured by his packing in of a nursery rhyme-worthy refrain into the song’s solar plexus: “Oh you’ll never know/How much I love you so,” he moans pedantically into the microphone, with Lissie egging him on in the background. Even the album’s most memorable song, the cavernously-arranged “This Isn’t Everything You Are”, finds its two verses of solid heart-bruised lyricism ruined by its bewildering marriage to a phrase that sounds like what one would say to someone who’s just spent the entire night binge-drinking ("Don’t keel over now, don’t keel over now; don’t keel over”). Already an affront to one’s tastes, such lyrical juxtapositions are also likely to be symptomatic of a greater failure within the band’s artistic capabilities. Whereas A Hundred Million Suns’
came encoded with an infectious, if slightly over-indulgent, game-changing ambition, and Eyes Open
– even if tediously corny at times – was tailor-made for a year’s worth of TV drama end credits, Fallen Empires
finds Snow Patrol looking inwards and finding that they’re quite incapable of doing any better. “Have we lost the magic that we once had?” wails Lightbody despairingly on the album’s closing half. 'Fraid so, buddy.