Monday, April 26, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 56 - Coldplay

Coldplay seems to be one of the more divisive bands of the last decade. On one side, people argue that the group is responsible for some beautiful, melodic anthems. On the other side, there are those who argue that Coldplay, like, totally sucks.

Britons voted Coldplay as the band most likely to put them to sleep. And merely dipping my toe in the water of online music criticism this week, I could already see the sharks of Coldplay haters circling ominously, waiting for the kill.

And I can't even deny that these haters don't have something to gripe about. Coldplay is nothing if not corny, all their songs sleekly processed, their melodies almost sickeningly saccharine. They're also very popular, their songs frequently plastered over commercials and advertisements, which grates the "art is incompatible with capitalism" crowd.

But I'm acknowledging that the haters have a point right at the very outset only because I liked Coldplay. I completely understand where the critics are coming from. But I certainly didn't that much of a problem with the group. The more I read about Chris Martin, the more he sounds like an insufferable douche (I get disproportionately angry when foreigners start endorsing U.S. candidates for President), but sticking strictly to the music, I think that there's a lot to like in Coldplay. Liking them involves admitting that a band so easily palatable and appealing to large groups of the listening populace can still be good, but perhaps sometimes the masses have okay tastes in music.

Still, for the Coldplay haters out there, I really don't have a rebuttal to any of your arguments, except to say that "I liked it". It's not something to showcase as the center of your iTunes library, but I think some sugary Coldplay as part of a well-balanced musical diet is not necessarily a bad thing.



MY LISTENING: I listened to A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) every day this week. I also listened to Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008) four times, and Parachutes (2000) and X & Y (2005) three times a piece.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Besides the ubiquity of "Clocks" on modern radio, Coldplay came up last December. I was driving with ChargeShot!!! editor Rob Kunzig, forcing him to listen to Kraftwerk. Their 1981 song "Computerliebe" came on, the melody of which Rob immediately recognized from Coldplay's 2005 song "Talk". The musical theft is so blatant that we were confused how Coldplay had gotten away with it. As it turns out, they had permission, but this sort of thing only makes me like Coldplay more. Any fan of Kraftwerk is a friend of mine.

WHAT I LIKED: As I stated above, Coldplay's music is very smooth and processed, and that helps it go down that much more easily. I had a busy week, so I appreciated the fact that Coldplay is not a difficult group to get into. Their music is unfalteringly melodic, and most of their songs are slow crescendos of Chris Martin's falsetto atop background strings, building to some sort of wall-of-sound moment that's supposed to hit you over the head.

Coldplay's music is sweeping and so melodic that it's very easy to get lost in their broad, open songs. Their debut album, Parachutes, set up the template that all Coldplay albums would follow. Here, Martin's high-pitched falsetto voice is at its best, and songs like "Spies" and the overplayed "Yellow" are that much more effective because of it. Still, I don't think the band's songwriting got that interesting until A Rush of Blood to the Head, which finds the band reaching for a little more emotional depth. Here, songs like "Green Eyes" and the title track take it a bit slower, with the group employing a little more subtlety, alongside the sweeping anthemic sounds of "In My Place" and "Warning Sign". The also over-played "Clocks" is a better hook than an actual song, but this is made up for by "The Scientist", a legitimately deserved hit that combines everything that's good about the group - the gradual crescendo, the catchy piano line, the sincerely melodic falsetto, the so-corny-they-must-be-authentic lyrics.

But while A Rush of Blood to the Head may be the definitive Coldplay album, I have to give Viva la Vida credit for stretching the boundaries a bit. While X & Y is a rather bland step sideways, Viva la Vida shows the group with slightly more ambition. "Yes" and "Death and All His Friends" are two lengthier songs that show Coldplay trying to move beyond the simple song structure that's dominated their past three albums, while "Lost!" and "Strawberry Swing" utilize more complex beats, as they try to escape the torrent of descending piano triads that form the background of so many of their songs. This album easily has the best melodies out of Coldplay's four releases; previous Coldplay tracks had simply relied on Chris Martin wailing a few hooks repeatedly, but this disc proves that the band can craft a real melody when they put their mind to it.

Finally, Viva la Vida has "Violet Hill", a song that moves beyond the slow-paced Coldplay aesthetic to provide some actual power in form of an ominous guitar riff. The band rocks out far too rarely, in part because their soft pop sells so well. But it's something they should do more often.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Apart from the Brian Eno influenced Viva la Vida, a lot of the band's songs are remarkably similar. They have a winning formula, and they know it. X & Y has been rightly derided as trying too hard to duplicate the success of "Clocks" in such songs as the completely similar "Speed of Sound". As stated above, I believe that Coldplay can tread new territory if they try, but it's something they haven't given nearly enough effort to.

Also, a lot of Coldplay's lyrics are corny, which is something you just have to live with. It's not as bad as it could be - Chris Martin manages to sell lyrics like "The sky could be blue, I don't mind / Without you, it's a waste of time" ("Strawberry Swing") better than most vocalists would - a sort of calculated gesture that my high school poli-sci teacher would call "genuine false sincerity". Still, on songs like "Don't Panic" which has Martin repeatedly imploring, "We live in a beautiful world", even his vocal talents can't save it.

Finally, while Coldplay songs are well-crafted and often beautiful, very few of them have an emotional effect on me. I feel like the songs are constructed to sweep me away, but too often I found myself one step removed from the music, as if standing back and watching it from afar. I appreciate the craft and talent, but songs like "Warning Sign" or "A Message" or even "Viva La Vida" didn't quite manage to capture me. And some tracks, like "Everything's Not Lost", I feel are only there to be appreciated from a distance, with perhaps no emotional material at all. Beauty and emotion are not necessarily equivocal, and I'm not sure if Coldplay has figured that out yet.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Everyone, including Coldplay themselves, seem to acknowledge the influence from the Scottish band Travis. So I guess I'd start there.


BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Cemeteries of London"

This song might be a not-quite-successful attempt to sound creepy and ominous. But I like the melody, and I think it's representative of a lot of the stuff that Coldplay does well.