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Snow Patrol - Wildness Music Album Reviews

Snow Patrol - Wildness Music Album Reviews
On his band's first album in seven years, Gary Lightbody aims for clarity, connection, and personal resonance but lapses into the pomp and incoherence that have plagued Snow Patrol for a decade.

In the early 2000s, Snow Patrol became inextricably connected with the ABC medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” Gary Lightbody and his band were a constant at Seattle Grace as the rotating cast of residents flirted with disaster, death, and (mostly) each other. Denny Duquette, Jr. took his final, swooning breaths to “Chasing Cars” in the Season 2 finale—and then the show’s cast performed it in the musical episode “Grey’s Anatomy: The Music Event.”

On their first album in seven years, Snow Patrol don’t need Shonda Rhimes to amp up the drama. Wildness was inspired by Lightbody’s struggle with sobriety, his father’s battle with dementia, a crippling fear of losing his edge as an artist, and—why not?—a headline-making new love interest for new guitar player Johnny McDaid. It’s a cruel twist of fate that Snow Patrol fail to come up with some worthy syncs for a “Grey’s Anatomy” script when they’ve practically lived in one.

This is a band that once gave silence at the breakfast table the gravity of a nuclear standoff. Their most personal album deals in matters of literal life and death and can get shrugged off like waiting room music. To some extent, this seems to have been Lightbody’s intention: He aimed for “clarity and connection” on Wildness, a familiar and canny pivot for intensely apolitical acts who want to acknowledge the world’s sad state of affairs without risking any blowback. “Friends and foes and princes/Are all just human in the end,” Lightbody preaches on “Empress,” before insisting, “This is so damn simple.” Perhaps it’s willfully naive as well, but you come to Snow Patrol for consolation, not confrontation.

No one’s asking the band to address the totality of life on Earth, although that’s exactly what they attempt to do on Wildness’ opener, “Life on Earth,” a by-the-book grasp at gravity. The intro is all shimmering acoustic guitars in negative space. Then a chorus lifts like velvet curtains. There are regal drum rolls, declarative lyrics about our collective existential predicament, and some well-placed profanity: “Shouldn’t need to be this fucking hard/It’s just life on Earth,” Lightbody snarls.

It’s bizarre to hear the same guy who’s begging for simplicity go on to compose an album whose lyric sheet can barely go one verse without herniating wordplay: “Now slip the tattoo on/Serenity it scorns your every mood,” he insists on “Wild Horses.” “Empress” has us “standing in the steady throne of restless hope.” On “A Youth Written in Fire,” he’s urging us to “Remember the first time we got high/We felt like the rabid lion’s roar.” Do any of these make sense, even to the lucky few who are capable of experiencing love and loss as intensely as Gary Lightbody? Did that first kiss really feel “like a planet forming,” or is he just happy to see us?

More than Lightbody’s lack of cogency, the imperious tone burdens Wildness. At the band’s peak, Snow Patrol albums were designed like Autobot Blaster: Even with U2 and R.E.M. standby Jacknife Lee’s battle-ready production, there was an intimate mixtape at the core of 2003’s Final Straw and 2006’s Eyes Open. And these guys are pros themselves now: McDaid is one of pop music’s favorite hired guns; he’s co-written for Shawn Mendes, P!nk, James Blunt, and Ed Sheeran. Lightbody is best known to some young pop fans as “that dude on ‘The Last Time,’” a duet with Taylor Swift that came in 121st out of 129 on a Rolling Stone ranking of her songs.

What’s remarkable about “Don’t Give In,” the lead single from Wildness, is that Lightbody’s vocals on the track sound even more mismatched to the music than they were on “The Last Time.” The incessantly repeated hook shows that he’s learned some things from his pop moonlighting, but, for some reason, the song also finds him abandoning his handsome Northern Irish burr in favor of a weak Springsteen impression.

It’s a fitting, if unfortunate, encapsulation of the confusion about what Snow Patrol are supposed to be that has apparently plagued Lightbody for more than a decade. The band initially came off as a scrappier, rawer version of Coldplay—but since “Chasing Cars,” they’ve sounded more like Coldplay with less conviction, only tentatively experimenting with pop and electronic music. Polished to an antiseptic sheen, without shine or sparkle, most of Wildness is squarely within the bland “young adult contemporary” realm in which McDaid and Lightbody operate outside of Snow Patrol. “A Dark Switch,” “Wild Horses,” and “A Youth Written in Fire” comprise the only efforts to live up to the album’s title, their jittery rhythms no spicier than a mound of Zatarain’s.

Yet the most affecting tracks are among the least stylistically ambitious. “Soon,” a plainspoken tribute to Lightbody’s father, is as moving as it is critic-proof. “What If This Is All the Love You Ever Get?” is exactly what you’d expect from a Snow Patrol song of that name: a reverberating piano ballad on which Lightbody pleads with us to let go of regret, live for today, tell her you love her, goddammit, do not let this pass you by. The one song on Wildness whose title is phrased as a question is also the only one that demands a “Grey’s Anatomy”-level emotional response, finally delivering on Lightbody’s stated aim of connecting with his audience, loud and clear.

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