In spite of platinum success in Europe—and even one platinum album here—Snow Patrol remains relatively anonymous, having poked into the mainstream briefly with the big ballad “Chasing Cars.” It might be the Irish/Scottish band’s refusal to caricature itself like its obvious forebears, U2 and Coldplay: Snow Patrol has yet to stray far from its template artistically, and its members don’t devise new outfits for each album and tour. The official line on Fallen Empires, Snow Patrol’s sixth album, is that the band is off in a new direction, even warning fans to keep minds open.
But Fallen Empires is less a sharp turn than a gentle veer: Electronic bits rap softly at the door of “I’ll Never Let Go” and “The Symphony,” while a South Central L.A. gospel choir visits “The Weight Of Love” and a couple of other songs. But Snow Patrol’s core hasn’t changed, and that’s just as well. Each song is still anchored by Gary Lightbody’s earnest—some would argue far too earnest, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong—lyrics, his vocals front and center on every track. Empires has the requisite huge ballad that swells into a power-ballad (“This Isn’t Everything You Are”), the quiet, contemplative ballad (“The Garden Rules”), and the dark-side-flirting rocker (“Fallen Empires”).
At the risk of damning the whole enterprise with faint praise, Fallen Empires is absolutely solid, with variations in quality almost imperceptible. On the Snow Patrol continuum, it’s less satisfying than 2003’s fantastic Final Straw, but a step up from 2008’s A Hundred Million Suns. There’s no song in particular that sounds like it’ll tip the band back into the wider public’s eye, except perhaps the maudlin, eager “Lifening,” which could play over a great romantic movie scene. But maybe, as evidenced by the band’s everyman approach, that’s exactly what these guys want: the freedom to make the best middle-of-the-road rock possible. It’s not where you want to spend all of your listening time, but it’s comforting at worst and occasionally fantastic.