The Coldplay Dilemma

According to the rushed pace of the standard Internet cycle, it’s probably more than a little late to the game to do an in-depth discussion on Coldplay at this point.  I mean, their new album came out nearly a month ago!  Even if you were interested in reading a thinkpiece on the band, you probably have had your fill weeks ago.  You’re probably even less inclined than usual to read a semi-glorified album review for something that you could have listened to multiple times already.

Of course, these are issues separate from the fact that it’s Coldplay that would be the subject of analysis.  The mere mention of their name is enough to get Internet Folk riled up to offer their witty take, usually a negative one at that.  Then again, I’m not the first person to acknowledge this fact, as most pieces on Coldplay are offered from some sort of an apologist’s perspective.  So I’m just going to lay my cards on the table: I’m a Coldplay fan.  As I’ve put it before, “That’s right: I have opinions on Coldplay b-sides.”

That’s a pretty great b-side.  See also “See You Soon” and “Careful Where You Stand”.

Now here’s where we go over all the caveats.  I’m a fan in the sense that I will buy each of their albums as they’re released, but there’s no guarantee that I will continue to listen to them as the years go by (in fact, it’s been several years since I’ve listened to X&Y, and I’ve made it a point to specifically not-listen to that album over the years–the play count on my iTunes for that album remains at zero, and you can go back three laptops and find that to be the case).  I’m a fan in that I will occasionally offer a defense of their musicianship or some of their works, but I’m not one to go out of my way to convince people.  I’m not exactly the zealous advocate that Coldplay may require.

I still listen to their first two albums fairly regularly, and I would argue that Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head are two of the best albums of the 00’s.  It’s striking that often you will find that many of Coldplay’s detractors will concede that there are at least a couple of good songs on those albums; what’s even more impressive is that there isn’t a general consensus on what those specific songs are, and if you add the vote totals up for each song, you would end up with votes for half of each album.  “Shiver” or “Don’t Panic”, “Everything’s Not Lost” or “Spies”?  “The Scientist” or “Amsterdam”? ,”Clocks” or “Politik”?  It’s easy to make a case for any of these songs (except for “Yellow”, which was of course their first breakthrough hit–I won’t stand for any argument for it, and it’s the one area where I’ll agree with the detractors.  Go figure).

Once A Rush of Blood to the Head made Coldplay the biggest band in the world however, it would undercut the identity that gave them their success in the first place: that they were the underdog.  It’s hard to believe the person singing a lyric like “So I look in your direction, but you pay me no attention” from “Shiver” when he’s married to Gwyneth Paltrow, or that the frontman of the best-selling band on the planet would be contemplating suicide, as in “Amsterdam”.  They were no longer the plucky underdog, they were not the confident favorite.  This would even box the band in musically, as they built their reputation on more intimate, simple songs.  Even when they would explode with emotion, there was still an element of restraint.  Sure there are big and brash pounding chords on “Politik”, but they resolve to a delicate conclusion by the end (pay close attention to the subtle melody that overlays the chords, that is the true movement in the song).

X&Y is the sound of a band spinning its wheels as it realizes it has these issues.  Luckily, the group realized that from an artistic perspective, that it needed a change in focus (they never would have a problem from a commercial perspective–X&Y opened up at #1, as they would for the rest of their career).  The band realized that they needed to alter their style, and hiring Brian Eno was a great way to start.  That’s why Viva la Vida works much better as an album–they realize their place, but they also realize that now they can indulge in more adventurous musical experimentation.  Mylo Xyloto was conceived similarly, except any subtlety was brushed aside in favor of amplification of all their traits, good and bad.  It’s still better than X&Y, but it would take a conscious effort on my part to seek out (most of the time I forget the album even exists, honestly).

Sadly, with the recent turmoil in Chris Martin’s personal life, the band could conceivably claim the mantle of their earlier albums.  Musically, it makes sense as well–after a couple of albums of experimentation, the time is ripe to return to the original formula and make more intimate songs.  Ghost Stories does that, but in the process it seems to miss out on the strengths of those early albums.  Guitars are generally discarded and drums are programmed, with only the bass given much of anything to do.  By de-emphasizing their instrumental strengths, it often has the aura of being a Chris Martin solo album more than a Coldplay album.  This was a band that had an underrated guitarist that would use novel chords, provide incisive leads, and had a complete mastery of tone, and a group that had a drummer that had a wonderful rhythmic sense and had great control over both powerful hits and subtle flourishes.

Despite these flaws, Ghost Stories does have its merits, and at least shows that the band is still willing to engage in musical left turns (the multi-tracked vocals reminiscent of Bon Iver in “Midnight” are an example where the experimentation works).  It will make a fine late-night album, but it won’t take the place of Parachutes or A Rush of Blood to the Head quite yet.