Having established themselves as a major force with their fourth album Eyes Open, which ended up the biggest-selling UK release of 2006, Snow Patrol retreated from a series of setbacks.
Gary Lightbody's vocal-cord polyps, a drug-related arrest, and the disruption of an American tour first by homeland-security chaos, then by the loss of both gear and luggage – to Berlin's Hansa Studio to write and record the follow-up.
Hansa Studio was the fertile ground in which the classic Bowie/Eno alliance bore such influential fruit, and the band were perhaps hoping for a little of that to rub off on them. Which in a sense it has, if only in rendering deeply personal concerns publicly palatable: for A Hundred Million Suns offers more than just a peek into Lightbody's fractured emotional state as he tries to recover from the break-up that stained most of its predecessor's material. Here, a song like "Crack the Shutters" reveals the singer in an intimate moment, "happy lost in your hair/ and the cold side of the pillow"; "Set Down Your Glass" finds him struck dumb by proximity to his beloved ("You sing and I'm killed/ I'm just not the same"); while "The Golden Floor" uses the sonic image of the pulse as the key to another's heart in its exploration of romantic symbiosis despite geographical separation.
There are still issues to do with the past, rummaged through in "Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands", in which, packing to move house, he finds a photo album and is overwhelmed by regretful memories, "one gigantic fairy tale of friends I haven't seen in years, drinking 'til the daylight hurts". But he's soon back in the reverie of love, walking a winter shoreline in "The Planets Bend Between Us" and celebrating his romance in the would-be epic trilogy "The Lightning Strike". Old photos, planets, engines, ancient history, meteorology... it's almost as if Lightbody set out to see how many diverse metaphors he could apply to love, taking the Discovery Channel listings as his guide.
Musically, there are attempts to broaden the band's style, the least successful of which may be the two-step shuffle groove of "The Golden Floor". Most intriguing are those that suggest the band have been listening to Sufjan Stevens: the conversational tone and diffident delivery of "If There's a Rocket, Tie Me to It", another rumination on the romantic pulse, and both the ambition of "The Lightning Strike" and its incorporation of minimalist techniques, glockenspiel, brass colouration and shoegazey guitar textures into a lengthy montage. There's still the grand self-absorption they share with Coldplay, but it's somehow more bearable here, even if one does at times feel a touch embarrassed at intruding upon another's emotional turmoil.
Pick of the album: 'If There's a Rocket, Tie Me to It', 'Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands', 'Crack the Shutters'