Don’t Believe the Hype Part Two
Coldplay Moves Sideways on X&Y

Well, there’s no hiding from it anymore. I’m officially in my thirties.

My early thirties, mind you, but still… I’m bloody old. A disturbing number of my friends are married, or parents, or both. Kids I went to high school with now have kids of their own, and houses, and corporate jobs. For a while now, I’ve been saying that I want to get to 30 and then stop, and stay that age forever. Well, there goes that plan…

The birthday was good, though. Thanks very much to everyone who sent good wishes, and to Gary and Lee for coming out to the midwest to celebrate with me. And just so you know, I’m banking the week off that I usually take, to be used at some future date this year. I’ll let you know.

Anyway, onward.

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It’s always my pleasure to introduce readers to obscure little bands they might not have heard of before. Coldplay (I know, it’s not a name that screams “superstars,” is it?) is a British quartet that’s trying to make a go of it here in America. They play winsome piano-led pop music, and in Chris Martin, they have a singer that would probably cause a bit of a splash, if radio and MTV were to give him a chance. They’re on their third album now, after experiencing some modest success with their second, and though you may have trouble finding their CDs in your local record outlets, they’re worth tracking down.

Mark my words, though – Coldplay could be huge. You heard it here first.

What’s that? You’ve heard of them before? Maybe it was the THREE MONTHS of inescapable hype surrounding their new CD, X&Y, that did it, huh? The endless messianic pronouncements, the appearances on every television show that has any relation (no matter how tangential) to music, the ubiquitous photos of Martin and company that line window displays and magazines and, if they could afford it, the insides of your fucking eyelids? There are five large mirrors in my house, yet I think I have seen Martin’s face more than my own in the past 90 days.

They even got VH1 to revive a cancelled television show (Storytellers) by telling them they wanted to appear on it. That’s some influence, right there. Maybe if they’d volunteered to make a cameo or something, they could have saved a doomed show like Firefly, or Wonderfalls? Perhaps they were too busy REDEFINING THE VERY MEANING OF ROCK! Their music can HEAL THE BLIND! It can CURE CANCER! Bet you didn’t know that, huh? Women line up for days just to touch the hem of Martin’s stylish garments, for his essence has restorative powers, and his very gaze (those deep, crystal eyes!) can mend the soul. Truly, Coldplay are gods among men, and we are grateful for them.

That’s kind of what it feels like sometimes, with all the breathless Saviors of Rock crap that surrounds them. It’s hard to blame the members of Coldplay for it – they’re as caught up in the maelstrom as anyone, and probably 99 percent of it is out of their control. It sort of makes you understand what would make Thom Yorke want to commit critical suicide with Radiohead’s post-OK Computer output, even though the joke was on him – critics adored Kid A and Amnesiac. And the same is happening with X&Y – it hardly matters what’s on the record. The corporate critics will love it, the indie critics will hate it. You could write the reviews months in advance and still be mostly right.

So what’s a quiet, unassuming little band like Coldplay to do? Expectations for X&Y were either unreasonably high or unreasonably low before they even started recording. It has sometimes seemed that the entire music industry is riding on the success of this record – a lot of pressure for what is essentially a group of modestly talented lads who write pretty little ballads. All they could do was duck their heads down and make the best record they could. They had to find a way to evolve without losing their core sound, to make something artistically satisfying that would also please the shareholders in Coldplay, Inc.

I shouldn’t need to point this out, but I wouldn’t be dedicating this much space to this band if I didn’t think they were, musically speaking, worth writing about. I quite liked A Rush of Blood to the Head, their insanely popular second album (number five on my 2002 Top 10 List), and I think the core U2-with-pianos sound is a good one, and worth exploring. I know the four guys in Coldplay aren’t a soulless, moneymaking machine, even though they sometimes have to make decisions like one.

And where A Rush of Blood betrayed no sense of the pressure they were under when crafting it, one cannot say the same about X&Y. The album is, quite literally, half-great. Six of these 12 songs (not counting the bonus track) burst forth from the Coldplay template, taking the sound in some compelling new directions. The other six sound like Coldplay by the numbers, mostly – safe, predictable, and entirely listenable, yet not exciting.

Oddly enough, the band has taken the interesting step of neatly subdividing their album, putting all the experimental songs in the first half and all the hits, as it were, in the second. The packaging even splits it up evenly, calling the first six X and the second Y. (Ooh! It’s like vinyl!) The record slowly pulses to life with “Square One,” a song that really lets the U2 influences show, and by the time the song kicks in, it’s the heaviest thing Coldplay have yet done. It ends with an acoustic coda, which glides into “What If,” the blueprint for the next generation of Coldplay ballads. This one builds with an otherworldly force.

And then come the killers. “White Shadows” takes their U2 and blends it with a new wave influence, but not an obvious one. It also has an unstoppable chorus, and a guitar sound that often reminded me of Dave Sharp, six-stringer for the Alarm. “White Shadows” has an extended coda, as well, that blends with the opening of “Fix You,” the most affecting ballad here. This and “What If” are the next steps that the band needed to take, and if anything in the excellent first half has a chance of becoming a massive hit, it’s “Fix You.” It’s like taking the quiet sounds of Rush of Blood and moving them from the theater to the stadium. It’s marred only by Martin’s rubbery, almost-but-not-quite-on-the-note falsetto, but the lovely Peter Gabriel-esque harmonies in the final minute make up for it.

“Talk” incorporates the lead synth line to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” for its guitar figure, and how’s that for a non-Coldplay influence? It’s a stomper of a song, too, with a great chorus. The title track has an oddly theatrical melody, one that packs a few surprises, and another in a series of cool choruses with some great guitar-bass interplay. And then the first half is over, and if they’d sustained that level of craft and growth into the second, they’d have had one of the best records of the year. But they didn’t.

The more average Y material begins with the single, “Speed of Sound.” Try this – hum the piano part to “Clocks” over the verses. It’s the same, it’s “Clocks” with a chorus. And though I like that chorus, and I dig this song, the unfortunate and unnecessary similarity really bugs me. It connotes a certain play-it-safe mentality that carries over into the second half. “A Message” is simple and breezy, “The Hardest Part” is even simpler and breezier, and “Swallowed in the Sea” is kind of a lullaby, one that should have been cut entirely. Only “Low,” with its nifty beat (swiped from U2, of course), and “Twisted Logic,” with its Beatles waltz progression and its backwards finale, show glimmers of the originality that sparked the first six songs. The hidden track, “Till Kingdom Comes,” is too boring to even describe.

It’s a measure of how much I like Coldplay that I still consider X&Y a good record. It’s just a shame that a band that so obviously wants to explore new dimensions can’t do so without thinking about the hundreds of people who might be affected by low sales. Given their self-imposed limitations on the second half, it’s amazing that they only stumble once or twice here. The more traditional stuff is still luminous, and there are only a couple of songs I would have excised. Still, you can tell that Coldplay had a fabled Difficult Third Album in them, and this is not it.

I try not to get caught up in the hype surrounding records like this one, but it was so all-pervasive this time that I couldn’t avoid it. Unfortunately, neither could the band – they turned in several of their best songs ever on X&Y, but saddled them with lateral moves and mediocrity. And yet, I wonder if my reaction isn’t somewhat tempered by the promotional buildup, if I’m asking, “That’s all you got?” because I was led to believe there was so much more. X&Y isn’t bad, but it isn’t the second coming. In fact, it’s a more tentative next step than the band should have delivered, but if you go into it knowing that, it’s an enjoyable piece of work.

I do hope this band is allowed to grow and evolve, though. If they can escape the hordes of hypesters telling them that they’re the best band in the world, then they might start to actually become that good. After all the hoopla dies down, what you’re left with is 12 songs on a CD, and the best bands realize that and make those 12 songs as good as they can be. Hype comes and hype goes, but the music lasts.

See you in line Tuesday morning.