Pretty, lovely, fine, fair, comely, pleasant, agreeable, acceptable, adequate, satisfactory, nice, benign, harmless, innocuous, innocent, largely unobjectionable, safe, forgettable.
I have just summed up in 19 words what I am about to say about Coldplay’s debut full-length, Parachutes, in 600. Aside from being seemingly tailor-made for the paper-thin adult contemporary market, what is it about this Britrock quartet that’s driving them up the American charts? Is it their popularity in their home country, or their Mercury Music Prize nomination? Could it be their charming, boyish good looks?
Perhaps, even, a reputation built by Noel Gallagher’s projected insistence that they’re “a bunch of fuckin’ pansies, the lot of them?”
In reality, Coldplay’s secret deadly weapon is vocalist Chris Martin. With the ability to mimic a Brit-accented Dave Matthews one minute, Jeff Buckley revived from the dead the next, and sometimes even a young Peter Gabriel, Martin’s heartfelt delivery seems to be what’s winning the hearts, wallets and alternative radio request lines of Americans young and old. That’s not to say that the rest of the group isn’t sharp. Guitarist Jon Buckland provides plaintive, strummed acoustic guitar with the occasional amplified wail, and bassist Guy Berryman with drummer Will Champion form a competent rhythm section.
Oh yeah, the songs. They’re nothing special. Most of the 10 tracks on Parachutes are indeed pleasant enough, often consisting of standard alterna-pop fare with the occasional folky ballad. They’re innocent and inoffensive in general, but in turn, they’re also exceedingly generic and immediately forgettable– so much so, in fact, that after a minute of one song, you’ve usually already forgotten what the last song sounded like. And that’s even after a few listens.
Parachutes opens with “Don’t Panic,” the title of which is likely lifted from British mock sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, despite the fact that the song has nothing to do with it. This subdued, dreamy opener contains Martin’s falsetto chorus of “We live in a beautiful world,” which seems to sum up the overall sentiment of the record; the record also closes with the inspirational swinger “Everything’s Not Lost.”
Most of the other songs sort of drift in and out of consciousness, with the exception of the second track, “Shiver.” It’s the only truly decent song on Parachutes, but simultaneously, it’s the only one that blatantly shows its influences. In fact, the influence can even be pinned to a single song: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” Martin has his Buckley impression down cold, complete with dynamic range and the trademark vibrato. But as enjoyable as the song may be, there’s no question that Buckley did it better.
And of course, you’ve probably heard their smash hit single, “Yellow,” by now. Indeed, it’s the most obvious choice for a single, and it represents Martin’s vocal stylings effectively, but it’s also the record’s weakest moment. Buckland’s grating, slightly tuneless guitars seem jarring, especially when sequenced in the middle of a series of songs that generally lack dissonance. And the saccharine lyrics are those that might have caused Mr. Gallagher’s hypothetical remark: “Look at the stars/ Look how they shine for you/ And everything you do.” You’d practically expect the band to show up at your doorstep with a wilting bouquet and Hallmark card.
Parachutes is ultimately a promising debut for Coldplay, if by “promising,” I mean, “promising them a windfall of cash and international popularity.” If nothing else, it’s harmless and pretty. Unfortunately, it’s nothing else. If that’s what you look for in your music, by all means, go for it. If you want substance, I suggest moving on.
You know your band is in trouble when your lead singer admits that his lyrics are terrible.
Yet back in 2005, shortly after the release of Coldplay’s chart-topping yet critically-drubbed X&Y, Chris Martin did just that. The story was picked up by dozens of publications, providing ammunition for the band’s many haters while also showcasing Martin as man who was surprisingly aware of his surroundings. Indeed, Coldplay’s quick ascension into the popular consciousness was as sudden as it was unexpected. This UK quartet was only two albums into their career when they began racking up radio hit after radio hit, winning Grammys and slanderous reviews in equal measure.
Martin had a relatable, everyman croon that appealed to multiple demographics, the band (or, more accurately, his band) all the while pounding away at watered-down Radiohead balladry behind him. This was a group that was easy to love and even easier to hate, which is exactly why Martin & co. designed X&Y to be their U2-aping, anthem-filled, crowd-pleasing stadium rocker… which, clocking in at one very bloated and ballad-heavy hour, it most certainly was not (and let’s not even mention Crazy Frog defeating “Speed of Sound” on the UK singles chart).
But then… something weird happened.
Martin was still omni-present—it’s impossible to marry a star like Gwenyth Paltrow and not be in the public spotlight—but he began trying different, unusual things: first he guested on a Jay-Z track, followed by a Kanye West single. He made a hilarious, self-mocking appearance on Ricky Gervais’ Extras, and before long announced that the band would be working with the legendary Brian Eno on their next album, all while admitting that, yes, he was in fact a terrible lyricist.
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends—despite its title sounding like a Rocky & Bullwinkle episode as penned by Jhonen Vasquez—is the least Coldplay-sounding album in the band’s discography. Gone are the piano-heavy ballads, Martin’s weepy falsetto, and the group’s naïve schoolboy charm. In their place (no pun intended) lies a sprawling, multi-textured aural tapestry that wraps itself around some of the tightest, quickest songs that Martin has ever penned. Eno bolsters the whole affair by adding worldbeat drums and the occasional choir vocal to mix things up a bit, ultimately playing it safe but still going beyond the usual Putumayo fare. In fact, opening track “Life in Technicolor” serves as the group’s first-ever instrumental number, replete with tablas, hammered dulcimers, and wordless Bono-affected howling swirling around the simple yet catchy chord progressions. “Technicolor” sets up a warning for all visitors to Viva Land: yeah, we’re trying something new, so either listen up or get out. Strange? Kind of. Necessary? Absolutely.
Admittedly, the band isn’t indulging in speed-metal shred-fests or cranking out a country album—this is Coldplay we’re talking about after all. Viva, instead, exhibits an enthusiasm and flat-out love of music that was virtually absent from X&Y. “Lost!” could have been another by-the-numbers weeper for the group, but Eno’s bristling, rattling percussion give the track a new, vibrant energy that isn’t traceable to any of the group’s previous efforts. “You might be a big fish in a little pond” Martin croons, before warning that having such a mindset “doesn’t mean you’ve won”. Yes, Martin is still relying heavily on cliché (the “December/remember” rhyme scheme is another standby that pops up this go-round), but his rehashed sentiments withstand scrutiny far better than the clunky wording that bogged down tracks like “Fix You” and “Talk”. Martin promised that his lyrics would get better, and though he’s still not on the creative level that Matt Berninger and Will Sheff occupy, he ultimately makes good on his claim.
Yet the more that Viva unfolds, the stranger the trip becomes. For example, Eno’s soundscapes prove to be so rich and detailed that Martin’s words are—for the first time ever—not the focal point of what Coldplay is all about. On the stunning, jaw-dropping highlight “Lovers in Japan”, Martin pounds away at a bouncy toy-piano melody that’s more reminiscent of Dexy’s Midnight Runners than Travis, all leading into a chorus where guitarist Jonny Buckland gets to unleash what might be the catchiest guitar riff he’s written since “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” (and yes, he absolutely bathes in the moment).
“Yes”, meanwhile, offers a descending verse vocal reminiscent of Thom Yorke, mashing it with a chorus straight out of the Oasis playbook, which—when taken together—makes for a remarkably strange trip down post-Britpop England (though Eno’s string quartet flourishes aren’t making it any easier to decipher). The rock guitars that populate “Violet Hill”, the backwards-looped slide guitar in “Strawberry Swing”, the off-key Sonic Youth riffing that concludes “42”… it truly sounds like that for the first time in the band’s career, Coldplay is actually using the ludicrous studio budget that they’re provided with each for release, here indulging in every passing whim and fancy, all while Eno serves as the playground supervisor, the results proving to be as potent as they are varied.
In a Rolling Stone interview that emerged the week of Viva La Vida‘s release (excerpted here), Martin discusses how the band “took apart” different albums with Eno, figuring how they worked and learning from the experience—Radiohead’s OK Computer being the band’s first and most obvious test subject. In the search for something different, Martin discusses challenging himself to write suites like Radiohead did, avoiding the usual verse-chorus-verse structure that will haunt their Top 40 singles until the day they die. Though it’s a nice pep-talk, the band doesn’t really get it: across Viva‘s 10 songs, we’re actually treated to 13 tracks.
The full official title of the track “Yes” is actually “Yes / Chinese Sleep Chant”, where immediately after the four-minute mark, the band decides to break into a guitar rock slug-fest that wouldn’t be too out of place on Keane’s Under the Iron Sea (ironic considering how that band is a total Coldplay knockoff). Why they’re kept on the same track space is somewhat of a mystery, though: if Martin wants to delude himself into thinking that he’s writing actual “Paranoid Android”-styled suites (the other victims on Viva are “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love” and “Death and All His Friends / The Escapist”), then so be it. As easy as it is to be taken by the neon sway of the multi-colored textures and major-key confetti, Viva‘s heart is made of a bunch of Coldplay songs; we’re just lucky that this time around it’s a particularly good batch.
With that said, Viva la Vida—as ultimately satisfying as it is—still has a hard time shaking its unabashed idol worship. Many weeks before the disc dropped, the band pulled a pseudo-Radiohead stunt by allowing fans to sign up for an e-mail which will send them lead single “Violet Hill” for free, the offer good for one week only. It’s a strange move for such a big band (especially for one that’s signed to a label as huge as Capitol/EMI), but such optimism was ultimately drowned out by the fact that “Violet Hill” is the weakest track on the entire disc. Which track currently sits at #2 on the Billboard chart as I write this (trailing behind Lil’ Wayne, of all things)? Why, the title track of course. Though the song is a bit of a red herring, “Viva la Vida” is the most accessible, immediate, and instantly gratifying number that the band has ever penned. The quick synth/string jabs, the almost dance-like drum beat, the excellent use of strings in the second verse… the list goes on. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the track also contains the best lyrics that Martin has ever written:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sweep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
[…] I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringin’
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never, never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world
Do these words look familiar? Of course they do: “Viva la Vida” was featured in an iPod ad that proved inescapable during the weeks leading up to the album’s release. In the clip, the group isn’t in silhouette: you can actually see their faces. So far in the iPod ad linage, we’ve only seen the faces of U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney (and technically Feist, but it was only in a previously-filmed music video clip, so it doesn’t really count). The band is completely aware of the leagues that they’re now batting in, and just like U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney, their superstar status doesn’t take away from the fact that they still crank out some outright terrible songs on occasion, as evidenced here by tired dreck like “42” and “Violet Hill”. Of course, clocking in at only 47 minutes, one can’t help but feel that Coldplay has jammed several albums worth of ideas into one place, the band easily setting themselves up for a Be Here Now-styled fall, but instead coming out the other end with a cohesive disc that actually rewards repeated listens.
No, Viva la Vida is not their masterpiece, but for now, it’s as close as they’re gonna get.
It’s been lauded by many as one of the greatest albums of all time; a brilliant second album, a truly symphonic opus. AROBTTH (I might just call it that) is an album that definitely has a legacy, proving once again that less equals more.
The album opener, Politik, is most unusual for Coldplay: a tune you can headbang to. Precisely six notes into the song you will see how many bands Coldplay is trying to rip off – none. A sort of ballad-hard rock combo deserves to be a single, especially for the piano interlude in the middle. The lyrics are the best on the album, no doubt; devoid of any cliches or cringingly bad mush that often plague Chris Martin’s writing. On the flipside however, it still feeds the haters, who may call it repetitive and boring at the same time, when in reality it is passionate and beautiful to a keen listener.
Similarly, In My Place will feed the haters, but so does everything, doesn’t it? A chiming, contagious guitar riff is carried along by Martin’s pleading, almost droney vocals and Berryman and Champions usual “that’s enough” bass and drum lines that fill songs but don’t expand them. Added to this is a light covering of beautiful strings and synths that transform the song into a pretty, well paced ballad that doesn’t bore.
This is in perfect contrast with the much harder God Put A Smile Upon Your Face. The acoustic guitar lick gives it a great (pardon my nostaligaic speech) groove, the electric guitar makes the song haunting and rocking yet catchy, the double time drum beat keeps the song moving very nicely and the bass line is more then ordinary, which is a good thing for a Coldplay song. The lyrics are decently cryptic and thought provoking and the tune is so sing-a-long its contagious. It moves at a fast pace and shows a more energetic, enjoyable side of Coldplay we really only saw once before then with Shiver (a shameless Jeff Buckley rippoff in any case). This is definitely one of the best moments on the album and deserves a spot in your playlist.
The contrast continues with the try-hard-but-somehow-manages-to-succeed ballad The Scientist, a slow, piano driven carriage for some quite *** lyrics, a nice melody and some Chris Martin try-hardiness. It’s a good thing, despite it’s obviousness, and especially so when the electric guitar comes in near the end with a lovely, catchy guitar riff that makes a good song a great one. Nothing here that’s too amazing, if not rather great, although the video is worth checking out. He spent a month learning the lyrics backwards to do that, by the way.
Riff-whoring follows in the beautiful Clocks, which can tend to be a bit undescribable. Repetitive is a good word, however I doubt you could find another bad word to describe this soothing, beautiful riff plugged into this soothing, beautiful song. The syncopated beat makes the song very catchy, and Martin’s lyrics are once again, half decent. The bass and guitar lines, whilst filling, are unimportant. Its the beat, the riff and the voice that matters here, and that translates into a very enjoyable 5 minutes. The recurring, circling piano riff will definitely make it a mesmerising one.
Following Clocks is a rather dissapointing note – Daylight. Nothing here sounds too original or amazing – the chorus is worth a look, but otherwise it’s a bit ordinary. The bass line works, the guitar line works, the piano works and it all fits together well, but it doesn’t really sparkle like it should, given the name. The lyrics are, once again, not brilliant, but then again, who cares anymore?
Green Eyes is a folky, unusual ballad that works fairly well. Reminiscent of corny country music, this is almost feels like Coldplay’s take on the country and western scene. It’s more touching and personal then that though; while the lyrics may be ***, the way Chris sings them is spot on and will make you cry inside. After the guitar comes in it gets a bit odd and very country – it might suit a slightly less swung, staggered feel – but that’s long in the past now!
Repetitive and corny, Warning Sign ticks all the signs for a tear jerker ballad, and probably represents one too many on this album. The Scientist is the big ballad, Green Eyes is the singalong ballad – and Warning Sign is the annoying ballad. A great chorus is filled out with the kind of backing that makes it seem like they were at the last minute with a great song and they needed to finish it off really quickly, if that makes sense. Worth the playlist, just for the chorus, although it’s not really that touching or impressive.
After the ballads and slows, we finally come to another lively, powerful song for Coldplays set – the criminally underrated A Whisper. In my mind, this takes the hard part of Politik and makes it better. Missing out on the slow part of Politik allows this song to focus on power, brilliant choruses and licks. The lyrics focus upon death, cryptically and interestingly and are carriaged by great guitar licks and riffs, an honestly great bass line and some beautiful synths and strings that carry the song out perfectly and lead into the next track.
The title track represents one of, if not the best moments on the record. It’s Politik redone with a smoother, more impressive approach that allows the listener to get lost in the music. The almost unsettling but always enjoyable volume changes in the catchy, bouncy chorus that ponders fear of making a big movement. Everything you find in here will be great, representing a perfect ballad-cum-rocker that blows all your expectations of what you thought Coldplay were capable of creating.
However, the best moment on the album is Amsterdam. While it’s definitely not perfect, with some pretty crap lyrics, it definitely has soul to a tee. Martin’s singing is top notch, but you wait until the chorus; the catchiest thing since The Beatles, and the most beautiful since Moonlight Sonata. This makes up for it’s flaws, and this multiplies in the ending, where we see the same thing again, with powerful guitar, drum and bass that carry the song through in a way that will send chills down your spine. A mature, lovely ballad-cum-rocker, similar to the title track and the lead track, is what Coldplay does best, and it does it well here.
All in all, this record represents a definite Magnum Opus for Coldplay, no exceptions. Good from the start to finish, if not great in some spots. It flows well, makes for easy listening, as well as very enjoyable listening.