When Radiohead abandoned the lush Britpop of The Bends to go diving in more esoteric seas, they left a perfectly good style to be claimed by any band ready to step up and claim it, and an extraordinarily polite and well-mannered tussle broke out amongst the various claimants for the title of Baby Radiohead. After the dust had settled, with several sets of exquisite tea china destroyed, such uncouth rowdies as Travis, South, the Doves, Keane, Muse and colonial upstarts Remy Zero had been decisively shoved to the floor by Coldplay, a gently unassuming band whose gently unassuming frontman, Chris Martin, suddenly became a global rock star of the sort who shags (and marries) Hollywood aristocracy with a full detail of paparazzi in tow and is proclaimed the world’s sexiest male vegetarian. (There are three other guys in the band, but even they have trouble remembering each other’s names.)
Critical objections to the contrary, there are worse things in the world than this particular band being massively popular. It’s easy to forget how refreshing it was when “Yellow” somehow managed to squeeze through the seemingly unbreakable death-grip of teen pop and nu-metal to return something resembling music made by recognizable human beings to the charts. Coldplay are almost totally derivative of earlier bands — there’s nothing on any of their albums that wasn’t already on The Bends, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain or U2’s The Unforgettable Fire — but they are undeniably good at what they do and have released several excellent, memorable songs. While contemporaries like British Sea Power and Franz Ferdinand inherited their forbears’ wild sense of energy and abandon, Martin is hobbled by anal self-control. Coldplay can entertain and sometimes even be moving, but release and surprise are not on the menu.
It’s appropriate that Coldplay’s first hit was an ode to the wussiest color of the rainbow. “Yellow” serves as a template for not only Parachutes, but for the band’s entire career. It’s a simple enough song that, on first listen, seems trivial, but the chorus does get stuck in one’s head. Parachutes as a whole is pretty average — even for a debut album, it’s too tentative and timid for its own good. It sounds like the work of a band terrified of causing anyone offense. Aside from “Yellow” and “Don’t Panic” (which belatedly achieved ubiquity several years after its release due to its inclusion on the soundtrack of Garden State), there’s little that stands out on the album. It’s enjoyable but unchallenging, as comfortable and reliable as canned soup.
Parachutes‘ success gave the band confidence, and A Rush of Blood to the Head is a major improvement. The sound is fuller, the arrangements more complex; most importantly, the songs are just a whole lot better. The high point of the album (and of Coldplay’s career so far) is the mid-point triptych of the plaintive, emotional “The Scientist” (a song that was greatly helped by a blatantly manipulative but still effective backward-going video); the remarkable “Clocks,” with its gorgeous cascading piano line and memorable melody; and the swirling, propulsive “Daylight.” Most of the time Martin hits the emotions he’s aiming for, and the album is Coldplay’s most emotionally direct.
Martin married Oscar-winning limey wannabe Gwyneth Paltrow, and the band cashed in on its momentum with a live CD/DVD. Martin, nice guy that he is, lent his now very popular voice to albums by pals like Ron Sexsmith and idols like Ian McCulloch.
Any question that Coldplay is, at heart, a deeply risk-averse band, was settled with X&Y. While the band’s artistic role models used whatever success they had to tempt their fans onto new stylistic terrain, Coldplay sought to consolidate their fan base in the least challenging way possible. The first single, “Speed of Sound,” is a blatant rewrite of “Clocks,” and too much of the album is typical mid-tempo Coldplay. “Talk” transposes the keyboard riff from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” to guitar to good effect, but that’s about as adventurous as this gets. Three consecutive songs on the “Y Side” find Coldplay taking up residence in the Bunnymen hutch without so much as rearranging the furniture (“Low,” “Swallowed by the Sea” and “The Hardest Part,” on which Martin single-white-females Ian McCulloch to an unnerving degree. It’s no wonder McCulloch is an avowed Coldplay fan. For such an unrepentant narcissist, it must be like listening in the mirror.) In many ways, X&Y and British Sea Power’s concurrent Open Season could be considered companion albums. Both spring from Ocean Rain as completely as Athena did from the cracked skull of Zeus, but while Open Season is constantly exciting and surprising, X&Y is competent and predictable. X&Y is well crafted and enjoyable, but it’s bloodless and distant. It feels manufactured, a piece of product in the march to become the Biggest Band in the World.
Evidently stung by criticism that X&Y played it too safe, Martin set out to shake up its successor. Producer Brian Eno was probably the perfect man for the job — since the mid-’80s, Eno’s primary role in the mainstream music business has been as the risky producer of choice for artists who don’t really want to take any real risks. So while Viva la Vida does indeed sound different from the previous Coldplay albums, it’s not different enough to scare off the core. Most of the tinkering is around the edges: bits of the Cure, Arcade Fire and Ride (especially on the excellent shoegazing coda to “Yes”), but the album still rests firmly in the U2/Bunnymen realm of post-punk. In terms of magnitude of change, this is akin to when girls named Tracy take to spelling it “Traci” in the eighth grade.
None of which is to say the album isn’t actually quite good. The sound is rougher and more human than the overly airbrushed X&Y, and nearly every song contains a clever structural twist or sonic texture (no wonder B.Eno gets those big bucks!) to keep the album unexpectedly engaging from start to finish. So while Viva la Vida may not be innovative in the grand scheme of things, Martin deserves some respect for trying. It would have been very easy (and likely profitable) for Coldplay to fill another album with rewrites of “Clocks” and “Don’t Panic,” so the effort to at least attempt something different counts for quite a bit. The fact that Viva la Vida (notwithstanding the absurd art damage title) is a pretty decent album counts for even more.