In the media blitz preceding the release of their hotly anticipated new album, X&Y;, the guys of Coldplay have made their mission quite clear: They want to be the best and biggest rock band in the world. And, for better or worse, the British quartet (Chris Martin on vocals and piano, Jonny Buckland on guitar, Will Champion on drums and Guy Berryman on bass) may be well on its way to realizing that goal.
In only two albums, the highly acclaimed Parachutes (2000) and A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002), Coldplay became an international phenomenon, selling 20 million records around the globe. The band's stately melodic power rock, ubiquitous on pop radio, has spun several imitators, including Keane. Starry-eyed high school girls, sensitive college dudes, hip-hop cats, soccer moms - they all dig Coldplay's music.
Ever since the handsome frontman Martin married actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003 and the two soon afterward had a baby girl named Apple, the group (well, Martin) has skyrocketed on the celebrity scale. There's a lot riding on the third album, including the stock price for EMI Group, the company that owns Capitol, the band's label. (After the release date was moved from February to this month, EMI's stock plummeted 16 percent in one day.) Of course, there are all those critics and eager fans wanting to know whether X&Y;, in stores today, measures up to or extends the greatness of Coldplay's previous gems such as "Yellow" and "Clocks."
So ... does it?
Well, not exactly. It is obvious from the first note on X&Y; that the gents are high on the fumes of their whirlwind success, that they want to obliterate U2 by pilfering from the veteran band's Achtung Baby-era sound, injecting it with their patented dramatic musical flourishes. Coldplay's sound has always been big and grand, somewhat inaccessible at first but still magnetic, sometimes downright beautiful.
But on X&Y; the music is too pumped up at times, full of surging arrangements that are so meticulously crafted there's hardly a sign of a pulse underneath. And Martin, the heart-in-hand chap with the idiosyncratic vocal style, goes into self-pity overload. It's hard sometimes to get close to the new music because Coldplay's super-sized pretensions are in the way.
The record kicks off with "Square One," a charged number about how, when you break it on down, we all just want to be loved: "You just want somebody listening to what you say," Martin croons over vibrantly aggressive guitar chords. The song loudly announces: "Hey, Coldplay is here." But there's no real trace of a melody, so the song isn't particularly memorable.
"What If," the string-laden next tune, gradually builds to a predictable anthem-like chorus, and you get the urge to hold a lighter in the air as Martin sings in that fragile falsetto of his. "White Shadows," resplendent with ringing guitars and an insistent backbeat, is a danceable highlight that could be a strong next single. It's better than the first one, "Speed of Sound," which feels like a retread of "Clocks."
Things take an unabashedly sentimental turn with "Fix You," one of those vulnerable, piano rock epics that has become a Coldplay cliche. Martin sings: "Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you." Although the tune threatens to crust over with sap, it works somehow. That song and the refreshingly unadorned bonus track, "Till Kingdom Come," are the most sincere, organic things on the set.
Overall, X&Y; is the weakest of the three Coldplay albums. In just a shade under five years, the guys have achieved mammoth success with a sound that obviously borrows from U2, Radiohead, the Beatles and the Verve but manages to retain a sense of originality - principally because Martin's vocal approach is so distinctive. With such a quick artistic and commercial peak, it surely must be intimidating for Coldplay to go back into the studio and flip its sound into something fresher, more adventurous and less predictable. But if you're trying to be the best and biggest rock band in the world, isn't that what you do?
Maybe on the next record, that goal will truly come to fruition. But the fellas of Coldplay need to get over themselves first.