by David Schultz
Since their debut in 2000, Coldplay has created an interesting little musical niche for themselves. Without alienating the mainstream MTV/Clear Channel audience, they have earned a modicum of rock credibility and can apocryphally be considered rockers in the same vein as Pink Floyd. Rather than turn to the Dark Side though, Coldplay has other goals. Making no secret of their desire to be bigger than U2, the English quartet has taken a curious approach towards surpassing their Irish superiors. On their first two albums, Parachutes and A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Coldplay established a distinct sound centered around Chris Martin’s simple piano melodies and wispy ethereal lyrics whose earnest sincerity rescued them from the realm of whiney drivel.
The star of this show is clearly Chris Martin, who you may have heard is married to a famous actress and named his baby girl after a popular snacking fruit. (I tell you this as I fear the Martin-Paltrows may not be receiving enough publicity, which would surely be troubling). While Martin doesn’t exhibit the technical proficiency of Billy Preston or Steve Winwood, this is not necessarily a negative within the context of Coldplay’s repertoire. One need listen no further than the 2002 hit “Clocks” to grasp that the beauty of Coldplay’s songs comes from their simplicity. Unfortunately, for their third album, Coldplay strays too far from the formula that works for them.
On X&Y, the songs are cryptically designated into two groups, the X’s and the Y’s in what appears to be an archaic reference to the sides of an LP. A better designation should have been to mark as X’s those spots that bear Coldplay’s distinct originality and the Y’s for those that make you wonder why this sounds like an ill-conceived U2 imitation.
Fans looking for the bands mix of pleasant melodies with orchestral Beatle-ish arrangements that rely more on Martin’s music than his voice will not be disappointed. The signature keyboards on the first single, “Speed Of Sound”, as well as “X&Y”, “Swallowed By The Sea” and “Talk” make them worthy additions to the Coldplay catalogue. However, when Jonny Buckland attempts the same trick on lead guitar, the songs suffer. On “White Shadows” and “Square One,” Buckland attempts to mimic Martin on guitar with little success. The same piercing guitar sound that works for U2 fails for Coldplay because the band simply lacks an edge. (Pun completely intended).
The dirgelike “Kingdom Come” is a valiant effort to close the album out on a solemn note, a la All You Can’t Leave Behind‘s Grace, however Martin does not possess the vocal range to give the song the warmth and emotion it needs.
Even though X & Y contains one too many songs that sound like U2 B-sides, (e.g. “Twisting Logic,” “Low”), it would be grossly unfair to characterize the album as a pale imitation of U2. The songs that play to Coldplay’s strengths are quite enjoyable and show that Coldplay has the potential to live up to their hype. Keep in mind though, this is not an album whose charms are immediately apparent. Perhaps Martin’s hypnotic keyboards require time to burrow into the subconscious before they can truly be appreciated. Like a wine that opens up when its had a chance to breathe, it is with repeated listens that the album’s subtleties are revealed. Unless Chris Martin erases world hunger, Coldplay has little chance of becoming the next U2 and should stop creating music in that mold. However, if they stick to the music that is uniquely theirs, there is a good chance that come 2015, some young band with a lead keyboardist married to Mary Kate or Ashley Olsen may proclaim that they want to be the next Coldplay.