Over a two-decade career, Snow Patrol has carved out a unique place for themselves. Since their 1998 debut, Songs for Polarbears, which Pitchfork hailed as “an impressive piece of work,” their melancholy anthems of heartbreak and separation have mended hearts, and the band has racked up an impressive number of critical and commercial accolades, including 15 million global album sales, 1+ billion global track streams, 5 UK Platinum Albums, and are Grammy and Mercury Music Prize nominated.
They emerged as heartsore musical prophets in the shadow of grunge and shallow pop, striking a chord in the minds, memories and hearts of listeners over six groundbreaking, confessional albums.
Eyes Open, released in 2006, was the biggest-selling album in the UK that year; they went on to headline such festivals as the prestigious T in the Park. But after their Fallen Empires tour ended in 2012, band members — guitarist, vocalist Gary Lightbody, guitarists Johnny McDaid and Nathan Connolly, bassist Paul Wilson, and drummer Jonny Quinn — decided to stop for a while.
“We were exhausted at the end of the tour,” says Lightbody. “We went from album to tour, album to tour for 10 years.
We needed to take a break. And it just kind of kept extending. It wasn’t that we planned to take six years off by any means.
“We all started living our own lives and realizing that we actually had lives outside of the band, a band that we still had an awful lot of fondness for and that we did want to come back to, I just perhaps needed more time than I first thought,” explains Lightbody.
“I do think the rest of the band would have been ready to record at any point over the last five years. But they never showed frustration or anger. Never did they say, ‘Hurry up and write the songs, mate.’”
In the interim, Quinn started a family and began putting in more
Sebastian in 2014). Connolly formed and fronted Little Matador, the band he started with a number of other prominent Irish and American musicians, including Dave Magee from Lafaro and Gavin Fox from Idlewild. Wilson signed on as the touring guitarist in Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel’s band Lieutenant, and produced a number of bands, including L.A. newcomers Broken Arrow. McDaid wrote songs and produced such diverse artists as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Robbie Williams, Ed Sheeran and Pink, and executive-produced Kodaline’s third album, due out this year.
Lightbody put the finishing touches on The Ghost of the Mountain, the second album by his Tired Pony side project with members of Belle and Sebastian, R.E.M, Reindeer Section and Fresh Young Fellows. He then moved to Los Angeles and began writing songs for movies (including “This Is How You Walk On” for 2017’s Gifted), and doing a number of high-profile co-writes with Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and One Direction. Songs that weren’t pulled from his own psyche were less painful to craft, and went a long way into healing what he considered to be writer’s block.
And at his website (www.garylightbody.com) he posted 15 cover versions of favorite songs by the likes of Ryan Adams, Bon Iver, Tom Waits and Glen Campbell.
But something else unexpectedly stimulated his writing even more. Two years ago he quit drinking. “Drinking was the only place I could hide from myself and if I was drunk I wasn’t depressed, just the next day but that could be remedied with more drink.” But he didn’t want that anymore.
“I’d been writing songs for years about love, been down that road so many times before: love, the end of love, the beginning of love. Mostly the end of love, to be honest. And I just knew that this album had to be something different. I hadn’t been in a relationship for some time and had no material to draw on. I had to look both deeper inside myself and out into the wider world around me and both seemed to be in chaos.”
Which is what he did for Snow Patrol’s seventh album. Titled Wildness, it taps into something raw and primitive.
“There are many types of wildness,” says Lightbody, “but I think it can be distilled into two: the wildness of the modern age and something more primal, something we were born with but forget so quickly now because of our addiction to ourselves, to social media, to everything faster, everything now. The level of hate and confusion and illogic and anger and spite that have come up like a torrent recently. That’s the ugly kind of wildness. But there is a beautiful side of wildness, our connectivity to each other, our passion, our love. It’s more and more being forgotten and dulled, because the modern noise is dialed up so loud that we can’t hear the other kind. I want to remember.”
That’s not the only thing Lightbody wanted to remember. His father, Jack, is suffering from dementia, making the musician realize how important it to hold on to your memories for as long as you can.
The album kicks off with the grand “Life on Earth,” which finds the musician singing about the first snow (the first time the word snow has ever been used in a Snow Patrol song), the first winter, the first dance, the first light and the first day in a strange new land. It’s a theme he returns to in “A Youth Written in Fire,” remembering another series of firsts, more dreamy and bittersweet, memories gathered up like pressed flowers in a book.
“I think the album is defined by memory in a lot of ways,” says Lightbody. “My father’s loss of memory, fading and frayed memories of my youth and my own sense of frustration when I can’t remember my own song lyrics.
“Maybe most of all, I think this album is the return from disaster. ‘ Disaster Button’ [from 2008’s A Hundred Million Suns] only presented questions. This album tries to have some answers. I think it’s the first record I’ve ever written that I haven’t just asked a bunch of questions. I actually tried to figure out why I was unhappy, why I feel out of place, why I’m afraid. I think my attitude towards relationships has changed. I think I’ve been protecting myself for whatever reason. There’s nothing really to protect myself for. It’s all in the album.”
That’s especially vivid on “Youth Written in Fire,” a Game of Thrones-ian epic that came to life when Lightbody was left alone in producer Garrett “Jacknife” Lee’s Topanga Canyon studio and put Nick Cave’s “Jesus Alone” on repeat.
“It created this kind of clamor of thought in my brain. When it was clear I was obsessed, Garrett said to me, “I’m just gonna leave this running. You just keep listening to the song.”
“That is the genius of Jacknife Lee, “Lightbody continues. “He knows when to push and when to step back. If I wrote these songs he built them. Built them from the ground up like skyscrapers. I can’t see what he sees. The song is in its final form in his head as he’s listening to me play the melody for the first time. It’s an extraordinary gift. One I’m truly grateful for as his contribution is way more than just producer, it’s co-writer and co-conspirator.”
“That day Jacknife and Nathan left me in the studio with Jesus Alone playing on repeat and I started writing, and I wrote the whole song from word one to the last word in the minutes after I heard the car drive away. It was like this massive crescendo of noise and cacophony and that terrifying bass on that song that was rumbling through me, jarring things loose.”
He continues, “After that, I went back to other songs and listened to them and thought, ‘Now I get it. This is an album about all the things that I’m afraid of.’ But instead of looking away or recoiling I wanted to stare right at them and not blink. I wanted to go deeper into the darkness. It took me a long time to recover after writing this album and I fell into a very deep depression because I had never went so far down into those places before. My alcoholism, my dad’s dementia, my bleaker thoughts, and of course the world and what was happening in it. Everything was fair game when I was writing. It’s just when I finished I thought there would be a sense of relief but that relief never came so it was hard to snap back into life again. I made my way back from it; it just took a while.
“After that breakthrough on ‘A Youth Written In Fire’ though, everything seemed to flow. The writer’s block had vanished, and without me even realizing those songs had solidified into a record.”
But a record unlike anything that Snow Patrol had released in its 24-year career.
“We’ve been playing the album to our friends and they’ve reacted in various ways, most of them positively,” says Lightbody. “But they all say it doesn’t sound like Snow Patrol of past times.”
The rest of the band members rose to the occasion. “Everyone played out of their fricking skin on this record. The drums are just incredible. At certain points everybody did things that they’d never done before and played well out of their comfort zones,” says Lightbody.
You can certainly feel the difference in the tracks, starting with the plaintive, wracked lyrics of album opener “Life on Earth,” with its mission statement, “This is something else, this is something else.” The songs sound surefooted, displaying a newfound sense of self and purpose. “Don’t Give In,” one of the more recent tunes Lightbody wrote, is likely the best advice he’s ever given. You can feel the passage through pain in the lyrics and feel the choices that the musician made in his road out of doubt and fear. It’s an inspirational as it is beautiful.
“Heal Me” feels like an ancient hymn. “Finally after way too many years of smashing my body to bits with booze and living way too unhealthily I met someone who helped me find my way back to health,” says Lightbody. “This song is about her, that journey and is dedicated to her.”
“Empress,” written for Lightbody’s two goddaughters (Jacknife’s daughters Betsey and Esme), is fierce and heartfelt, with runaway drums and keen words of wisdom. “A Dark Switch” is something else altogether. Slinkier than before, sexier even.
“What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?” is a heartstring-puller, posing the question nobody wants to ask. “You know if that’s true, I’m genuinely okay with that,” says Lightbody. “I’m not trying to look for love. I think I’ve spent enough time now on my own to actually like myself now.”
“Soon” is about the unbreakable connection between a father and son, playing with the space-time continuum and revealing a series of real or imagined moments between Lightbody and his father. “Wild Horses” takes nothing from the Rolling Stones hit of the same name except perhaps its fierce pacing. It’s a note to self, instructing the protagonist to aim higher, to love bigger, to dream more, and to just let go of your fears. Which is what Lightbody has done on this album, allowing the listener to witness him slaying his own dragons.
The last track, “Life and Death,” shimmers with light and revelation. It’s a rumination, a human story of love and forgiveness demonstrating that perhaps everyone ought to take this long between albums to reflect long and hard before they write.
“Seamus Heaney, my favorite poet of all time, said at 71 that he was only discovering what some of [his] poetry means. And this is coming from a Nobel Prize-winning poet. [It’s] a great testament to inspiration. It makes you aware that we’re hardly in control of what we’re writing at all. In fact, on good days we’re not at all. Because on bad days you try to wring words out of the pen like a dirty dish towel, to have something fall on the page. But on good days you can’t stop yourself. You’re writing reams and reams and reams. It might not all be golden but it’s glowing.”
“I had so few of those days on this record. Everything was eked out, and I think that I just got used to it. I didn’t stop until it was right, until it was done. Sometimes you write with inspiration and you look back on it in five years and think, ‘I wish I’d put more time into that.’ Sometimes it takes you five years to write the thing. Like now. And you know for sure when you finish an album like that everything makes sense and I bet you I’m never not proud of this record.”