In Defense of Coldplay (only, not so much the new album)

Jon Pareles' recent critical review of Coldplay's new album X&Y in the New York Times has so much praise of the band in it that it's hard to see what he doesn't like. (Or perhaps, it's easy to see what he doesn't like, but it's hard to believe that he means it.)

For starters:

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.

This all seems true. Perfect pop melodies, and a hook in every song. It's why Coldplay is one of the few bands where people want the whole CD, not just the single from the radio.

Many bands have beautiful melodies -- the Doves, Engineers (a new band), and Elbow (a relatively obscure band), and Clinic all come to mind as comparable sounding bands who should be better known than they are. Then there's the old dinosaur called Radiohead, of course. And singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright are in the same folder in my feeling-melodic hard drive (though they have little in common with Coldplay musically, and both certainly supersede Coldplay in terms of originality). But nearly all of the names just mentioned have a tendency to get too arty after a certain point in their careers. I can appreciate Radiohead's recent CDs, but I can't listen to them more than twice. I listen to Clinic and the Doves much more, but only certain songs (for instance, Clinic's "For the Wars" off of Walking With Thee); there are several tracks that don't quite seem to go anywhere on all of these bands' albums.

What serious music critics don't like about Coldplay is precisely what I do like. Every song has structure: chorus, verse, bridge. Every song, that is, is a song. Pareles suggests that it might be a bit too robotic ("anything that distracts from the musical drama"), but I think of it -- again, in the pop idiom -- as well-focused writing and production. They know what they are trying to do, and they do it.

Pareles does make a valid criticism of Chris Martin's over-use of falsetto:

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.

I have to accept this as a legitimate criticism. It's a predictable part of the show, and as such, the surprise of it has worn off. Still, I've tried to get my voice to do that falsetto, and it simply won't go there. Am I alone? How many men can do that with their voices? Chris Martin has a great voice, maudlin falsetto included. Why begrudge him the attempt to show it off?

On to the lyrics:
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.

Here I think that Jon Pareles has it exactly backwards, at least on the first two CDs (X&Y does tend a bit more towards self-indulgence than the earlier albums did). Chris Martin's lyrical restraint is in fact one of the best things about Coldplay's first two albums, Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. The lyrics are simple, but even when they express very familiar feelings, they tend towards an intriguing abstraction. Take the hit "Yellow," which everyone is sick of hearing, even me. But here are the first two verses:

Look at the stars,
Look how they shine for you,
And everything you do,
Yeah, they were all yellow.

I came along,
I wrote a song for you,
And all the things you do,
And it was called "Yellow."

Yellow? (Read the rest of the lyrics here.) It's an almost-annoyingly simple song, with a melody that can quickly become cloying. But the lyrics remain just a little bit elusive, in a way that over-the-top love songs don't often manage to do (it's much less obvious than U2's "One", for instance). The saving grace is that word "yellow," which has no fixed referent that is evident to the listener. Especially with the reflexivity of the second verse, this is the exact opposite of self-indulgence or self-involvement. It's almost entirely impersonal.

Another example, from a song expressing a very different kind of feeling, is "A Rush of Blood to the Head," from the second album. Here are the opening verses:

He said I'm gonna buy this place and burn it down
I'm gonna put it six feet underground
He said "I'm gonna buy this place and watch it fall
Stand here beside me baby in the crumbling walls

Oh I'm gonna buy this place and start a fire
Stand here until I fill all your heart's desires
Because I'm gonna buy this place and see it burn
Do back the things it did to you in return

He said I'm gonna buy a gun and start a war
If you can tell me something worth fighting for
Oh and I'm gonna buy this place that's what I said
Blame it upon a rush of blood to the head

This being the album Coldplay released not long after 9/11, one has to presume a connection to terrorism. Interestingly, what Coldplay is doing is not a "give peace a chance" type of message. It's more psychological: a song about the sociopathic kind of anger that sometimes leads young men to commit Acts of Violence Against Society. But it's not only about that, as the line "I'm gonna buy this place" ties the impulse to violence to the urge to dominate and subjugate, attributes as essential to American Capitalism as they are to acts of terrorism. Even Coldplay's political references are carefully controlled -- and just complex enough to be interesting.

Many other Coldplay songs fall in these parameters. They work out a good balance: all of it feels real, but not much of it is directly personal or socially overt. (There are no songs called "I love you Gwyneth," for instance.) If we're talking about self-pity, self-indulgence, and general emo-overload, a much better culprit would be Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst sure has a lot to say about his ex-girlfriends!

Two more paragraphs from Pareles full of criticisms that turn out to be compliments, and I'll quit:

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.

Though Pareles means this as a set-up for his final takedown of what he calls Coldplay's "hokum," he manages to pinpoint some of Coldplay's greatest strengths along the way. Did anyone hear "Clocks" and not feel some admiration for the writer and the musicians who came up with it? And I don't think Coldplay's extremely studied production values necessarily represents the absence of "any glimmer of human frailty." It could just as easily be described as craftsmanship and care.

We did a lot of driving this past weekend, and got a good earful of X&Y. It's decent and listenable. It's especially heartening that they're sticking with pop, not getting into experimental art-rock or electronics (they are thinking more U2 and less Radiohead, which is fine by me). Still, the production is much more dense with instrumentation, louder and less intimate-sounding. The music sounds less personal -- more radio-friendly? -- and the shadings of U2's guitar and Pink Floyd production effects are sometimes a bit too obvious for my taste.

Despite its flaws X&Y shows that Coldplay know how to make an album that sounds like Coldplay, which is exactly what I was asking for. So sue me!