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Review: Snow Patrol, ‘Fallen Empires’

CHELMSFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Paul Wilson and Gary Lightbody (R) of Snow Patrol performs on the Virgin Media Stage on day 2 of the V Festival at Hylands Park on August 19, 2012 in Chelmsford, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: January 10, 2012
Label: Island/Fiction

Cooler than Coldplay but less provocative than R.E.M., the Irish-Scottish modern-rock quintet Snow Patrol embrace the “bigger is better” philosophy on their sixth studio album, and disprove it. Although frontman Gary Lightbody has acknowledged battling writer’s block during the creation of Fallen Empires, labored material isn’t the problem with this overblown opus. Whether they’re trying to obscure the songs’ perceived flaws or make some sort of dazzling artistic statement, the band opts for grandiose production (courtesy of Jacknife Lee) and sprawling arrangements — cue the orchestra and the choir — that blunt the effect of Lightbody’s deceptively strong songwriting. Compared to the U2-aping “In the End” or the six-minute colossus “The Symphony,” the sappy yet engaging guitar pop of 2006 hit “Chasing Cars” feels like nasty punk rock.

Among those abetting this orgy of excess are arranger Nico Muhly, conductor Owen Pallett, the L.A. Inner City Mass Choir, the Friends Choir, an army of string and horn players, and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. The opening track, “I’ll Never Let Go,” aspires to the ominous vibe of the Rolling Stones'”Gimme Shelter,” but comes nowhere close. From the the buzzing synths to the percussive bombast to the the sparks-free interplay of an uneasy Lightbody and overeager guest vocalist Lissie (who wails on a few cuts, aiming for a soulful edge), the song feels cluttered and fussed-over, not remotely dangerous.

A quietly charismatic presence with a hint of a rasp in his yearning voice, Lightbody needs no manufactured drama to make his point; it’s easy to picture him as a Nick Drake-style folkie strumming an acoustic guitar and pouring out his heart in wholly unironic fashion. When he transcends the fancy trappings and brings these tunes to life — succeeding about half the time — he comes across as a compassionate, decent guy who excels at eloquent simplicity. “This Isn’t Everything You Are”offers comfort to friends in deep distress (“Don’t keel over now… There’s joy not far from here / I know there is”), while the somber “New York”calls out, “Come on / Come out / Come here,” to a faraway lover with persuasive fervor.

In fact, it takes a fearless, and rare, sincerity to espouse the humble sentiments of “Lifening”without inducing groans, yet Lightbody somehow pulls it off. “Waking up in your arms / A place to call my own / This is all I ever wanted from life,”he croons gently, and you want to believe him. Of course, then he piles on “Ireland in the World Cup,””words of reassurance,””some kids,” and a bit about wanting to the kind of dad that his own father was. Sure, it’s corny, but who could doubt a guy like that?

“It’s like you told me / I should learn to let it all go,” he moans on “The Weight of Love,” only to be caught up in a storm of distracting noisy effects that extinguish the possibility of genuine catharsis. No stranger to outside projects — notably the credible alt-country venture Tired Pony with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck — he seems to reserve his grander impulses for Snow Patrol, paradoxically making it his least-interesting outlet at the moment. Fallen Empires says little about the creative state of the band, the rest of whom must be feeling fairly marginalized about now. Maybe the inevitable expanded edition will come with a set of no-frills demos, revealing what the songs were like before they got dressed up and drowned out.