Florence + the Machine, Snow Patrol and the trickiness of spiritual energy

John J. Thompson

On their sixth album, Fallen Empires, the Irish band Snow Patrol threatens to get all experimental on us.

The first track, “I’ll Never Let Go,” starts with an arpeggiated synth track and a distorted vocal that had me thinking my record player’s needle needed replacing. Cameos by Lissie and background vocals by The L.A. Inner City Mass Choir certainly set the stage well. Things really open up, though, on the next track (and first single), “Called out in the Dark.” The beat gets really dancey and the hooks are sharp. Next up, “The Weight,” lays down a four-on-the-floor groove as it unfurls what really sounds like a sort of postmodern worship song. Is frontman Gary Lightbody talking about the Almighty when he sings, “You love the little signs of life / You love it when we lose our minds / You love these little wars of words / You love it when they call your name”?

As the album progresses, though, the clubby accouterments give way to the band’s stock in trade. At the core, fortunately, Snow Patrol is simply one of the best Euro-pop bands going, trading in soaring melodies, heartfelt lyrics and powerful dynamics in the wonderful tradition of bands like U2, Simple Minds, Coldplay and The Silencers. It’s no surprise that indie hipsters choke on the sincere lyrics, which explore the darkest of themes: death, addiction, depression, futility and loneliness. These are wrestled with in ways that - for those who have ears to hear - seem awfully hopeful and even Gospel-tinged.

Fallen Empires is a bit more electronic on the surface, and the change is nice. But fortunately Lightbody and company seem to know exactly what they are good at. This kind of boldly soulful and redemptive music is never loved by the critics, but it’s the kind of stuff that just may stick with real people for a lifetime.

I’ll admit that I was slow to warm up to Florence + the Machine. Some television appearances left me scratching my head. She seemed to be on 11 all the time, acting the dervish without first earning the right. I listened to her aptly titled debut, Lungs, exactly once - believing it to be a little more than a testimonial to her ability to holler.

But the songs, ever-present on alternative and college radio, got under my skin a bit. It was the second single from her second album, Ceremonials, that hooked me. “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back so shake it off!” Indeed. With her triumphant soprano riding a tribal chorus, she immediately reminded me of some of the greats from the 1980s: Kate Bush, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Annie Lennox. It was enough to get me to dive into Ceremonials, as well as her debut, and I like what I hear. Her tracks manage to sound incredibly artful and catchy at the same time. And that voice!

There’s another hook here, though. Florence’s lyrics frequently anchor the songs in spiritual energy, sounding much like the sort of vaguely religious fare that fills stadiums so perfectly at Coldplay or Peter Gabriel shows. At one point in music’s history it would have been relatively safe to assume that any artist who persistently pointed to the heavens and sang of deliverance, forgiveness, faith and hope would be doing so from a perspective of Christian faith. But since U2 - who certainly did imbue their rock with elements of the Gospel - it seems that this brand of hand-raising, euphoria-inducing, inspirational rock has become its own genre. Even when she gets as specific as referencing detailed elements of the Eucharist in “Bedroom Hymns,” it’s hard to tell if the body of Christ is more than a metaphor for a lover. In fact, Florence’s machine seems primarily fueled by Christian metaphors and references, from prayer to baptism to communion and back again. If she’s not a believer she sure seems haunted by faith.

For Discussion

  • What do you make of the music from these two artists?
  • Would you consider Snow Patrol's "The Weight" to be a "postmodern worship song?"
  • Are you bothered by the appropriation of Christian elements in mainstream songs or can they serve as examples of common grace?


Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure