Mums and Dads of the world be patient with your children
- A quote that appears on just about everything produced by the band
The 2004 Mercury Music Prize contained a fair few albums by bands from Scotland, including eventual winners Franz Ferdinand. Although originally from Northern Ireland, Snow Patrol are based in Glasgow and tend to be classed along with their fellow Celts. Their third album, Final Straw, was included on the shortlist of Mercury nominees, and was also nominated for the 2005 Brit awards, losing out to Keane's Hopes And Fears on the night1. Success finally came along when their album won in the Best Irish Album category at the 2005 Meteor awards, Ireland's equivalent of the Brits.
It entered the album charts at number three on Valentine's Day 2004, and didn't leave the Top 50 for over a year. What makes it so worthy?
In their earlier albums, Songs For Polar Bears (1998) and When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up (2001), frontman and lyricist/songwriter Gary Lightbody creates his unique sound combining acoustic, almost country, guitar in sparse arrangements, with his velvety voice crooning heartfelt lyrics, usually dealing with the pain of loving and losing. He doesn't feel obliged to insist on rhymes, with the result that the lyrics have a stream of consciousness talking-to-himself feel. And he loves to give his songs obscure titles which reveal a quirky sense of humour, such as 'Get Balsamic Vinegar - Quick You Fool!'
On Final Straw, one of the best-selling albums of 2004, he continues this approach, but the songs have more intricate production2 and are more electric. In addition, many of the songs segue into each other, often in the same key, giving a seamless feeling of 'oneness' to the whole album.
Let's Have a Listen, Shall We...?
'How To Be Dead'
The opener of the album begins with some interference, soon overtaken by gentle guitar strumming, punctuated by the odd glockenspiel ping. The lyrics are an apology or explanation after, or perhaps during, an argument.
I haven't made half the mistakes that you've listed so far.
Drugs get the blame for this particular fight. The tune itself is a typically simple one, consisting mainly of three adjacent notes, repeated in a loop. Midway through the song we have a noisier guitar sound, punctuated by a slide guitar, before a return to the sparse opening instrumentation. Some critics are annoyed by such a low-key start to the album, but Lightbody claims that it's his favourite, so there. The fourth single to be released from the album, it only managed to scrape into the Top 40, at number 39, in November 2004.
And so the tempo speeds up a little, the guitar sound becomes more electric and fuzzy, there's distortion on the vocal, and we're off. This song is more optimistic, and deals with the fears and doubts that beset a new relationship.
If it looks like it works and it feels like it works, then it works
High, repeated guitar chords are joined by an insistent bass and some showy splashy cymbal work, and towards the finish, the sound of an ambulance siren...before some banshee wailing...
Straight into the next track, with the same harsh guitar sound, and in the same key. The verse starts simply, but the rush into the chorus, complete with wailing from the vocals and guitar in unison, is a contrast.
Just because you were right before, doesn't make you right
More explanations after a break-up, and with some violent imagery creeping in - there's blood and broken glass...
Another segue, in the same key, same punctuated, stabbing guitars, leading to a driving chorus with repeated refrain. And yet more arguing out loud, with words that are no doubt familiar to every couple in the world.
I've not opened my mouth, can you read my mind so easily?
And more violent pictures - broken limb, joyless, where I'm hit, madness...
Not a pause for breath, and still in the same key, next up is one of the singles released from the album3, and the one which attracts the most airplay. The chorus, such as it is, consists of an upward and then a downward guitar slide, accompanied by some vocalised 'oohs'. The driving beat is hammered out on a high-pitched snare drum.
I struggle for the words, and then give up
This ditty concerns love from a distance, from someone too shy to make the first move and tell the girl directly how he feels. But goes on to describe the author's close and evolving relationship with the written word. The coda at the end sounds as if it was recorded in a bathroom, with just the echoing voice, and twangy repeated single guitar note...
...and that same note is sustained, before being joined by repeated piano chords, followed swiftly by a catchy tune played on both the guitar and glockenspiel. Growing up, maturing, travelling, learning from experience, these are the subject matter of this track.
All these places feel like home
This track actually contains the title of the album, Final Straw, which is unusual, as many of the song titles are not mentioned in the lyrics at all. The tune pushes along to an insistent drum beat, and the vocal harmonies in the chorus make it a very pleasing tune. It was another single to have been released off the album4.
This was the 'breakthrough' hit single5 that brought the Patrol to a wider audience, and caused much lighter waving at festivals throughout the summer of 2004.
...to think I might not see those eyes, makes it so hard not to cry, and as we say our last goodbyes, I nearly do...
Described as 'not so much tugging at the heartstrings as tearing them out by the roots', this is a heartbreaking end of romance farewell. The anthemic tune starts soft and slow, Lightbody's breathy Belfast brogue almost whispering the emotion-laden words, before peaking in the sing-along chorus. In this, the slightly more positive upward progression of the vocal contrasts with the downward progression of the guitar chords. The guitar solo is a simple four-note downward scale, helped to a crescendo by a string section.
It's easier to lie and be safe
The soft contemplative guitar and unplugged feel belie the fact that this is yet another post-row apology, and the difficulties in being honest. It ends with a few sparse notes picked out on a glockenspiel.
'Ways And Means'
Starts with staccato chords on the piano, alternating between major and minor, giving an edgy sense of unease which is suddenly shattered by the guitar riff. The string section is still there, but used in a much more aggressive fashion.
Breathing fire was never this much fun
This tells of the difficulty in actually saying goodbye at the end of a relationship, the loss of honesty and the fear of the unknown that lies ahead. Better the devil you know, eh? Should he go? Or stay and live a lie. Oh and there's more blood!
'Tiny Little Fractures'
Fuzzbox on, catchy la-las in the chorus, Gary gets all the female fans excited by singing about wet T-shirts and stuff.
What do you mean I don't love you? I am standing here aren't I?
An up-tempo number, with a cracking bass-line...but it's yet more tear-filled and angst-ridden questions.
'Somewhere A Clock Is Ticking'
Written during the beginning of the Iraq war, this song is an anguished reaction to events happening elsewhere, as time marches on, and bombs fall.
In slow motion, the blast is beautiful
The song starts with a plaintive tune picked out on the guitar, before the vocals start in a statement and echo format. The chorus is a lament with gently falling 'Aaaah's, accompanied by syncopations on the drumkit, before it is reprised by an angelic choir and a crashing sweep of strings surges through the tune...before suddenly falling back to the single guitar again.
A short and sweet little number about admiring your loved one while they sleep, as a cold winter morning slowly dawns.
baby won't you breathe
This is a slow waltz featuring little more than the singer and a piano.
'We Can Run Away Now They're All Dead And Gone'
The customary two-minute silence before bonus tracks is shattered by the opening guitars and sparkly synth trills of this number.
You push a little tear into my eyelid
An exploration of feelings and emotions, closeness, desire, getting away from the cares of the world.
'Half The Fun'
More fuzzy guitars and vocals on this paean to self pity. More angry images appear - suffer - get help - doctor - lick your own wounds.
With a second chance I'd mess it up again
And so the album ends in a fuzzy distorted frenetic guitar solo fade out...
So what makes the whole album6 such a winner? Partly it's the right mix of bittersweet slow acoustic numbers interspersed with the more bouncy rock songs. Partly it's the great production, with bits of white noise and interference playfully sprinkled throughout. And partly the instantly likeable tunes. And the move from small label Jeepster to giants Polydor undoubtedly helped on the promotion and marketing side.
But mostly it's the way it deals with painful emotions that everyone who has ever been in a relationship has experienced, delivered in a direct thinking-out-loud way that speaks on a personal level to the listener.
Other Snow Patrol Albums
Another project the band members are involved is 'Reindeer Section' - in conjunction with other luminaries of the Glasgow indie scene such as Arab Strap, Mogwai, and Belle & Sebastian. The group numbered 27 at the last count. This so-called sideline has attracted much critical acclaim, and Lightbody was considering devoting most of his time and energy to it if Final Straw wasn't a success. They have released two albums; Y'all Get Scared Now, Y'Hear! (2001), and Son Of Evil Reindeer (2002).
Snow Patrol are: Gary Lightbody (guitars and vocals), Mark McClelland (bass) until March 2005, Jonny Quinn (drums), Nathan Connolly (guitar). Paul Wilson took over as bass player in April 2005, and Tom Simpson on keyboards/turntable was made a full-time band member at the same time.