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| Highest Rated 2006
Apples and Oranges
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
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
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
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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