The Case Against Coldplay
By JON PARELES
THERE'S nothing wrong with self-pity. As a spur to songwriting, it's right up there with lust, anger and greed, and probably better than the remaining deadly sins. There's nothing wrong, either, with striving for musical grandeur, using every bit of skill and studio illusion to create a sound large enough to get lost in. Male sensitivity, a quality that's under siege in a pop culture full of unrepentant bullying and machismo, shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, no matter how risible it can be in practice. And building a sound on the lessons of past bands is virtually unavoidable.
But put them all together and they add up to Coldplay, the most insufferable band of the decade.
This week Coldplay releases its painstakingly recorded third album, "X&Y" (Capitol), a virtually surefire blockbuster that has corporate fortunes riding on it. (The stock price plunged for EMI Group, Capitol's parent company, when Coldplay announced that the album's release date would be moved from February to June, as it continued to rework the songs.)
"X&Y" is the work of a band that's acutely conscious of the worldwide popularity it cemented with its 2002 album, "A Rush of Blood to the Head," which has sold three million copies in the United States alone. Along with its 2000 debut album, "Parachutes," Coldplay claims sales of 20 million albums worldwide. "X&Y" makes no secret of grand ambition.
Clearly, Coldplay is beloved: by moony high school girls and their solace-seeking parents, by hip-hop producers who sample its rich instrumental sounds and by emo rockers who admire Chris Martin's heart-on-sleeve lyrics. The band emanates good intentions, from Mr. Martin's political statements to lyrics insisting on its own benevolence. Coldplay is admired by everyone - everyone except me.
It's not for lack of skill. The band proffers melodies as imposing as Romanesque architecture, solid and symmetrical. Mr. Martin on keyboards, Jonny Buckland on guitar, Guy Berryman on bass and Will Champion on drums have mastered all the mechanics of pop songwriting, from the instrumental hook that announces nearly every song they've recorded to the reassurance of a chorus to the revitalizing contrast of a bridge. Their arrangements ascend and surge, measuring out the song's yearning and tension, cresting and easing back and then moving toward a chiming resolution. Coldplay is meticulously unified, and its songs have been rigorously cleared of anything that distracts from the musical drama.
Unfortunately, all that sonic splendor orchestrates Mr. Martin's voice and lyrics. He places his melodies near the top of his range to sound more fragile, so the tunes straddle the break between his radiant tenor voice and his falsetto. As he hops between them - in what may be Coldplay's most annoying tic - he makes a sound somewhere between a yodel and a hiccup. And the lyrics can make me wish I didn't understand English. Coldplay's countless fans seem to take comfort when Mr. Martin sings lines like, "Is there anybody out there who / Is lost and hurt and lonely too," while a strummed acoustic guitar telegraphs his aching sincerity. Me, I hear a passive-aggressive blowhard, immoderately proud as he flaunts humility. "I feel low," he announces in the chorus of "Low," belied by the peak of a crescendo that couldn't be more triumphant about it.
In its early days, Coldplay could easily be summed up as Radiohead minus Radiohead's beat, dissonance or arty subterfuge. Both bands looked to the overarching melodies of 1970's British rock and to the guitar dynamics of U2, and Mr. Martin had clearly heard both Bono's delivery and the way Radiohead's Thom Yorke stretched his voice to the creaking point.
Unlike Radiohead, though, Coldplay had no interest in being oblique or barbed. From the beginning, Coldplay's songs topped majesty with moping: "We're sinking like stones," Mr. Martin proclaimed. Hardly alone among British rock bands as the 1990's ended, Coldplay could have been singing not only about private sorrows but also about the final sunset on the British empire: the old opulence meeting newly shrunken horizons. Coldplay's songs wallowed happily in their unhappiness.
"Am I a part of the cure / Or am I part of the disease," Mr. Martin pondered in "Clocks" on "A Rush of Blood to the Head." Actually, he's contagious. Particularly in its native England, Coldplay has spawned a generation of one-word bands - Athlete, Embrace, Keane, Starsailor, Travis and Aqualung among them - that are more than eager to follow through on Coldplay's tremulous, ringing anthems of insecurity. The emulation is spreading overseas to bands like the Perishers from Sweden and the American band Blue Merle, which tries to be Coldplay unplugged.
A band shouldn't necessarily be blamed for its imitators - ask the Cure or the Grateful Dead. But Coldplay follow-throughs are redundant; from the beginning, Coldplay has verged on self-parody. When he moans his verses, Mr. Martin can sound so sorry for himself that there's hardly room to sympathize for him, and when he's not mixing metaphors, he fearlessly slings clichés. "Are you lost or incomplete," Mr. Martin sings in "Talk," which won't be cited in any rhyming dictionaries. "Do you feel like a puzzle / you can't find your missing piece."
Coldplay reached its musical zenith with the widely sampled piano arpeggios that open "Clocks": a passage that rings gladly and, as it descends the scale and switches from major to minor chords, turns incipiently mournful. Of course, it's followed by plaints: "Tides that I tried to swim against / Brought me down upon my knees.
On "X&Y," Coldplay strives to carry the beauty of "Clocks" across an entire album - not least in its first single, "Speed of Sound," which isn't the only song on the album to borrow the "Clocks" drumbeat. The album is faultless to a fault, with instrumental tracks purged of any glimmer of human frailty. There is not an unconsidered or misplaced note on "X&Y," and every song (except the obligatory acoustic "hidden track" at the end, which is still by no means casual) takes place on a monumental soundstage.
As Coldplay's recording budgets have grown, so have its reverberation times. On "X&Y," it plays as if it can already hear the songs echoing across the world. "Square One," which opens the album, actually begins with guitar notes hinting at the cosmic fanfare of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (and "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Then Mr. Martin, never someone to evade the obvious, sings about "the space in which we're traveling."
As a blockbuster band, Coldplay is now looking over its shoulder at titanic predecessors like U2, Pink Floyd and the Beatles, pilfering freely from all of them. It also looks to an older legacy; in many songs, organ chords resonate in the spaces around Mr. Martin's voice, insisting on churchly reverence.
As Coldplay's music has grown more colossal, its lyrics have quietly made a shift on "X&Y." On previous albums, Mr. Martin sang mostly in the first person, confessing to private vulnerabilities. This time, he sings a lot about "you": a lover, a brother, a random acquaintance. He has a lot of pronouncements and advice for all of them: "You just want somebody listening to what you say," and "Every step that you take could be your biggest mistake," and "Maybe you'll get what you wanted, maybe you'll stumble upon it" and "You don't have to be alone." It's supposed to be compassionate, empathetic, magnanimous, inspirational.
But when the music swells up once more with tremolo guitars and chiming keyboards, and Mr. Martin's voice breaks for the umpteenth time, it sounds like hokum to me.