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Apples and Oranges

 

Coldplay: X&Y

Capitol, 2005

Rating: 3.3

 

Posted: June 7, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Man, it must suck to be Chris Martin of Coldplay. No, wait, seriously -- go with me on this for a minute. Put aside the riches, the sold-out stadiums, the cute movie-star wife, all of it, and consider this: The release of your band's new album is such a big deal that your record company blames a recent drop in profits on the fact that said album's release date was delayed. Yeah, you like the rock star life -- the cheering crowds, sex with Gwyneth Paltrow, all that money -- but what's with the heavy expectations? Wasn't anybody listening when you referred to Coldplay as only "the 78th best band ever" on VH-1's "Storytellers" recently? "For Pete's sake!," you feel like shouting. "I'm the guy who wrote 'Yellow,' for crying out loud! What's gotten into you people?!!!"

Okay, maybe Martin isn't quite that humble. But repeated spins of X&Y, Coldplay's third platter of sweeping, stadium-friendly ballads, confirm that it's a bit too slight to bear up under the weight of all that anticipation. Coldplay, to be sure, is very good at what it does, and what it does best is produce very pretty songs, lent an extra populist boost by forceful keyboard riffs and ringing guitar lines. Steroid-pumped piano runs preen atop chord progressions that are stirring in their simplicity. The effect is at once airy and bombastic, a combination that has, of late, drawn a ton of comparisons to U2.

But those comparisons ignore U2's heft to focus solely on its arena-rock grandeur. As capable as those members of Coldplay who aren't named Chris Martin are at their instruments, they work an entirely different musical paradigm (not that the band doesn't try, jarringly often, to mimic that band's different atmospheric moods). The propulsive interplay of U2's rhythm sections is rarely content to simply mark time, to pave the way for conventional guitar riffs. Both bands rely on chiming arpeggios, but the central winding keyboard figure that powers Coldplay's "Clocks" (from the gazillion-selling A Rush of Blood to the Head), amplified to rafter-rattling proportions, feels a bit like overcompensation for the song's lightweight melody, whereas The Edge's double-helix structures are simultaneously sinuous and sinewy, wound into the DNA of the songs.

And it would seem to be obvious, but there's a crucial point here that bears touching upon: Chris Martin is no Bono. The latter can be overbearing, it's true, but that's a central function of rock frontmen. But he's versatile within that overbearing persona: flashy, socially aware, romantic and mischievous. Martin, on the other hand, has one mode, a wispy earnestness better suited to writing love poems that will (or at least should) never be read by their object of unrequited desire ("Look at the stars / See how they shine for you," indeed).

The point being that there are moments on X&Y, as on Coldplay's previous albums, that lunge unabashedly for tried-and-true endorphin release of grandiloquent arrangements turned up to 11, and achieve their intended effect quite successfully. "Speed of Sound" benefits from an insistently ornate keyboard riff and a busy but no-less-hummable chorus; "Talk" (which nicks the riff to Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" to such a degree that the seminal Krautrock band scored a co-writing credit) nails a pealing guitar line that's blatantly obvious in its Edge-y ambitions and echo effects, even as it suggests, with no trace of irony, that its addressee "write a song nobody had sung / Or do something that's never been done."

The arms-outstretched backdrop of "A Message" never builds to a fist-pumping crescendo, but it sustains its yearning tone at maximum setting as Martin sings "I'm nothing on my own / Got to get that message home." (Um, you sure you want to open yourself up like that, Chris?)

But for the most part, the album's money shots -- the singsong guitar of "The Hardest Part," the eerie U2 evocations in the assured chorus of "White Shadows" -- are fleeting, strung together by unremarkable verses and remarkably generic lyrical sentiments. And this, too, is what Coldplay does, and does often. It makes you wait for the good stuff. It also makes you wade through ill-considered conceits like "Fix You," in which Martin croons "When you try your best but don't succeed ... when you love someone but it goes to waste ... I will try to fix you." (How ... romantic? Controlling? Condescending? It's hard to decide.)

On the floating opener "Square One," he empathizes "You just want somebody listening to what you say" in his oh-so-safe, relatable best-friend voice. That's true, but more than that, we want to hear somebody who has something to say beyond fortune cookie homilies like "the future's for discovering" or "Do you feel like a puzzle / You can't find your missing piece."

As often as not, the lyrical and musical structures on X&Y just aren't sturdy enough to stand up to the kind of heavy scrutiny that the bolder, louder songs (or moments of songs) invite. When Martin sings "You're in control / Is there anywhere you wanna go?" on "Square One," it's like he's ceding control to the listener, acknowledging that he doesn't quite know where to take us between the big, bright moments that drew us in. For all his faults, that's not a dilemma that Bono's been known to suffer.

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