Go away for a year and people just might remember your name when you come back. Go away for seven years and they’ll reasonably presume you have taken early retirement. Either way, you’re not necessarily going to be welcomed back with open arms, a bunch of flowers, and a sherry – people want to know where you were, why you took so long to return and what you have brought back with you. There is also no guarantee they’re going to pay any attention to what you have to offer. Snow what? Gary who?
Snow Patrol's previous studio album, Fallen Empires, was released at the tail end of 2011, and while the band as a unit subsequently slipped from view, Gary Lightbody and Johnny McDaid kept their hand in. McDaid has become a go-to co-songwriter for acts such as Ed Sheeran, Pink, Birdy and Robbie Williams, while Lightbody has written with Sheeran, Taylor Swift and One Direction as well as being an integral part of the splendid (if mournful) Tired Pony, which includes former REM guitarist Peter Buck, and Irish songwriters and producers Iain Archer and Jacknife Lee.
The strain of melancholia, however, that oozes from Lightbody (ironically named for someone whose burdens have often anchored him to the spot) is such that his co-writing touches are nowhere near as sprightly as McDaid’s. The songs on Snow Patrol’s first album in seven years, then, are weighted with Lightbody’s recent self-confessed pursuit of “clarity and connection”, while the overall theme focuses on the conflict of being trapped by technology and released by human interaction.
Alcohol, drugs, depression, thoughts of suicide, and self-hatred played a part in Lightbody's disconnect, he has admitted, as did his father's struggle with dementia. It's all good now, thankfully, following full engagement with his problems via a psychotherapist, acupuncture treatment, and taking up the meditative martial art of qigong. The disclosure of hitherto repressed emotions has invested songs such as Don't Give In, Heal Me, What If This Is all the Love You Ever Get? and Soon with real substance. Several are in the established tradition of Snow Patrol songs: earworm-friendly tunes underpinned by Lightbody's smooth vocals and agitated lyrics. Various addictions are broached in one of the album's lesser songs, A Youth Written in Fire ("Remember the first time we got high … Those days are someone else's life…"), while loneliness and dementia are touched upon, respectively, in two of the album's best tracks.
The piano ballad What If This is all the Love you Ever Get? ("What if it hurts like hell … I know the wreckage so well") and the slow-build Soon ("Tomorrow is nothing to fear because, father, it's always today … the secret storms of your wild youth now just gentle breezes") form a crux of sorts for Wildness – they get to the heart of things in a surer way than many songs on previous Snow Patrol records, and amplify Lightbody's concerns loudly enough for those in a similar position to hear.
That Wildness isn't, perhaps, the striking return of the band of 10 years ago shouldn't be surprising. The weaker tracks (including Dark Switch, Wild Horses, Life and Death) clearly highlight a band with contrasting interests, while the best songs (which also include Life on Earth, Empress, Don't Give In) display the mark of a 41-year-old songwriter, a very good songwriter, still in the middle of figuring things out. The best, one suspects, is still to come.