Review Summary: A Hundred Million Suns is another middling affair from a by-now-mature pop act, and now might be the time to ask why.
That Snow Patrol would achieve worldwide success with 2006’s Eyes Open
was never exactly pre-ordained. 2003’s Final Straw
had become a big deal in their native UK and Ireland, allowing for a worldwide release the following year, but the likelihood of the twee, introverted rockers going global amidst one of the hottest summers on record could was always going to be a long shot. Yet the Summer of ’06 didn’t reckon with ‘Chasing Cars,’ the subtly uplifting single that found its way into some important scene or other in Grey’s Anatomy, and very quickly units (for this was when people actually bought units) began to shift themselves en masse. And by the time rainy season (which in Ireland is basically all of them) rolled around, Gary Lightbody & co.’s quiet self-deprecation and ethereal soundscapes were in high demand. Expressed as an algorithm, Snow Patrol + inclement weather = cultural synthesis; add in a long train ride and a good set of headphones, and A Hundred Million Suns
is basically the soundtrack for a drab, cold winter morning when even your socks are wet and everybody smells of damp or worse.
That’s not to say A Hundred Million Suns
is as dull as the weather- although that’s sometimes the case- merely to say it captures a mood, and captures it quite well. It would be easy to read a degree of cynicism in Lightbody’s “woe is me” schtick, and most smart people would, but beneath the by-the-numbers pop rock there’s a gifted, occasionally brilliant, lyricist. Not that you’d know it by the opening verse of ‘If There’s A Rocket Tie Me To It,” mind (as far as bad first impressions go, this is showing up for work without pants.) Like U2 without guitars, the intro track builds with fluttering synthesiser sounds, before Lightbody announces: ”Two weeks later like a surplus reprieve / I found a hair the length of yours on my sleeve.”
In just two lines, the singer reveals everything that is terrible and brilliant about him in one fell swoop: the second is a perfect example of his acute sensitivity to detail; the first a ballsed attempt at creating a sophisticated rhyme that renders the sentiment utterly unintelligible.
Elsewhere, Lightbody’s pop songwriting skills come to the fore as he combines broad, relatable sentiments with simple but clever images. On potential future single ‘Please Just Take These Photos From Me,’ he sings ”Through water damaged bloodshot eyes / The fleeting triumphs, brazen lies all seem to mingle into one.”
On the Chris Martin-like ‘The Planets Bend Between Us’ he drops the dynamite line, ”your freezing speech bubble seems to hold your words aloft,”
a golden moment in an otherwise forgettable acoustic ballad. Lead single ‘Take Out The City’ is arguably the most complete pop song in the group’s armoury, combining a bright, uplifting arrangement that gently builds in scope with lyrics centred around the band’s (3/5 of it anyway) home city, Belfast. Anybody who knows anything about Belfast knows it’s long overdue a positive song written about it after decades of Alternative Ulsters, ‘Take Back The City’ sees the group profess their love for the city, warts and all. As Lightbody sings: ”It's a mess, it's a start, it's a flawed work of art”
What’s most grating about A Hundred Million Suns
is its inconsistency, both lyrically and musically; there is a sense early on that there is a very good record in the making, but the longer it progresses the more remote that possibility seems. It’s not so much the familiar pop story whereby an artist frontloads an album with singles and phones in the rest; Snow Patrol clearly harbour some ambition, and they’re well capable of producing quality pop music, but they rely on the strength of their melodies, and often they’re just not that good. For the third album in succession, the recording is helmed by Irish producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M.), and it’s a comfortable fit for the band. Lee is a seasoned pop producer and his arrangements are rarely anything but interesting, as evidenced by ‘Take Back The City,’ which builds from a straightforward jangle-pop shuffle into a trashy barre chord affair reminiscent of early Oasis before slipping, on cue, into one of the group’s trademark airy choruses. It’s a rare moment of real dynamism on the record, where the only escape from the chronically middling tempos is the generally stellar arrangements.
It can’t all be put down to Jacknife- guitarist Nathan Connolly has clearly felt the itch too, as his presence is clearly felt throughout the album’s more experimental tracks. On ‘Engines,’ Connolly pairs up with keyboardist Tom Simpson, layering haunting ‘Morning Flory-style feedback atop Simpson’s boogie woogie piano motif, and the same duo combine for ‘What If This Storm Ends",’ the Oasis-like psychedelic rock stew that opens the three-song closing suite ‘The Lightning Strike,’ Simpson this time adding eerie, gothic piano lines to Connolly’s more orthodox melodies. Conversely, acoustic guitar looms large through much of the rest of the record, from the double-tracked strumming that opens ‘Take Back The City’ to the elegant, precise fingerstyle of ‘Set Down Your Glass.’ The latter boasts one of the album’s strongest melodic performances, but it’s marred by Lightbody’s insecurity as a vocalist: amid the sparsest instrumental arrangement on the CD, the singer persists in multi-tracking his voice, and predictably it sticks out like a sore thumb. On an album where great melodies are relatively thin on the ground, this is one instance where the producer’s gotten it wrong.
Snow Patrol deserve to be commended for what they’ve attempted to do with A Hundred Million Suns
. With long-term success by no means guaranteed, they could have been forgiven for playing it safe on the most vital record of their career, but instead they’ve attempted to subtly evolve without shattering the core that’s taken them this far. There is just about enough top quality pop music on offer to ensure Snow Patrol’s star continues to grow on the world stage but, worryingly, A Hundred Million Suns
is another middling affair from a by-now-mature pop act, and now might be the time to ask why.