Coldplay, Sno­rah and Snow Pa­trol’s mu­sic to count sheep by

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Brian Boyd on mu­sic

Ho­tel chain Trav­elodge re­cently com­mis­sioned a sur­vey to find out what was the pre­ferred choice of mu­sic to get us to sleep at night. You’d ex­pect the win­ner to be some new age rub­bish com­plete with the sound of waves and muted dol­phins. You’d even think that a CD called Mu­sic Guar­an­teed to Get You to Sleep might fig­ure in the list some­where. Cer­tainly it was never go­ing to be Pub­lic En­emy, Me­gadeth or our old in­dus­trial-rock friends, Ein­sturzende Neubauten.

In fact, the favoured snoozeen­hancers all turned out to be con­tem­po­rary acts drawn from the rock/pop end of the mu­sic world. The top four sleep choices were Coldplay, James Blunt, Snow Pa­trol and No­rah Jones. We can dis­pense with two of the above forth­with – I have a doc­tor’s note that says I can never be ex­posed to James Blunt’s mu­sic, so I don’t re­ally know the sort of stuff he does. As for No­rah Jones, well, it’s not for noth­ing she’s known as Sno­rah Jones.

Coldplay and Snow Pa­trol are in­ter­est­ing choices, pri­mar­ily be­cause they both loosely be­long to that “nou­veau glum” cat­e­gory still pop­u­lar with record-buy­ers. Other bands here in­clude Keane, Ath­lete and any­one who knows how to put a few mi­nor chords to­gether and is vaguely sad about some­thing un­spe­cific.

The key to this sur­vey is not the mu­sic pro­duced by Coldplay or Snow Pa­trol, but rather the lyrics. Both bands emerged at the fag end of Brit­pop, which was dis­tin­guished by a so­cio-re­al­isitic approach to lyrics – even if this only ever seemed to amount to “we’re go­ing down the pub”.

The nou­veau glum move­ment dis­pensed with re­al­ism and re­placed it with solemn and sen­si­tive gen­er­al­i­ties that had a melan­cholic un­der­tow (a sort of ni­hilism-lite). The mu­sic re­sponded with plain­tive pi­ano-led melodies and the fre­quent in­tro­duc­tion of a string sec­tion to in­di­cate “sad emo­tions”.

Many trace nou­veau glum back to Ra­dio­head. It’s true that the band did pa­tent a form of this type of mu­sic around the time of The Bends, but since then it’s all been global ter­ror alert and freeform jazz polyrhythms around their way.

We’ve pre­vi­ously noted that you will al­ways know when a Snow Pa­trol song is about to be played in a TV drama pro­gramme: it’s the bit when they cut to the per­son who’s on a life-sup­port ma­chine. And the lyrics do fit that gen­eral sense of all-pur­pose sad­ness. This from their song Run: “To think I might not see those eyes/ Makes it so hard not to cry/And as we say our long good­bye/I nearly do”. Th­ese guys make Span­dau Bal­let sound like Billy Bragg.

A brief anal­y­sis of the lyrics of nou­veau glum bands shows how they all seem to clus­ter around the same lyri­cal themes. They are the same themes you’ll find in any amount of self-hyp­no­sis tapes. Hence their sleep in­duc­ing qual­ity.

A few years ago, not­ing the mu­si­cal and lyri­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties among th­ese bands, a Liver­pool song­writer called Mitch Benn wrote a song called Ev­ery­thing Sounds Like Coldplay Now, which in­cludes the lines: “Ev­ery­thing sounds like Coldplay now/And if you do a high bit in the mid­dle eight/Then you have al­most solved the rid­dle of just how to sound like Coldplay now/This could be Em­brace, Keane or Snow Pa­trol/ Thir­teen Senses sound like this as well I’m told/It could be any­one, it’s so hard to say/Maybe this is ac­tu­ally Coldplay”.

Neatly re­turn­ing to the ho­tel theme, Andy Par­tridge of XTC (a very good lyri­cist) once re­ferred to the lyrics of nou­veau glum bands as be­ing “the mu­si­cal equiv­a­lent of that cor­po­rate art you get in Hol­i­day Inn foy­ers – a lot of orange stripes over a bit of turquoise”.

Snow Pa­trol: buck up, lads

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