Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Speed of Sound

It's too hot for outdoor activity this afternoon. So I've dusted off the old "press" cap and written what to the best of my knowledge is one of the first published reviews of the new Coldplay album (though I think NME got the first jab).

Maybe you'll get what you wanted:
a review of Coldplay's X&Y

The word "anthem" gets bandied around a lot when talking about modern popular music. Whenever a band's sound is big enough to fill arenas or stadiums, or when it's fans are compelled to fire up their cigarette lighters during an encore, someone invariably attributes such phenomena to the power of the anthem.

So arguably, we've got a thousand modern acts to which the term might reasonably apply. How is the average listener to distinguish between one anthemic rock song and another?

Coldplay has just made it easier. Simply place in one column almost every over-the-top piece of musical bombast ever written; and in the other column, almost every track on X&Y, the British quartet's newest and best record.

Granted, this is something of an oversimplification and exaggeration, but the fact remains that aside from a few minor missteps, X&Y is quite simply a modern pop recording of monumental proportions and achievement, and will undoubtedly be one of the biggest releases of 2005.

Interestingly, the album isn't even really much different from Coldplay's previous work, nor is it even very innovative when taken in the grand scheme of things. But Chris Martin and company definitely know their strengths, and it's to their credit that they've subtly expanded upon them for this record. Coldplay have always written strong hooks, but tracks such as "X&Y" and "Twisted Logic" now display their growing aptitude for arrangement; and the album's warm, expansive production provides ample space for each song and each musician to really stretch out.

Nowhere is this more evident than on "Fix You," the glorious centrepiece and apparent emotional core of the album. Beginning with a simple falsetto melody sung over a droning organ, the track eventually builds to a thrilling conclusion, marked by an incredible unity of musical emotion amongst the band. Martin's well-observed choral harmonies are here perfectly framed by the thunderous attack of drummer Will Champion and bass player Guy Berryman, as well as the ringing wall of guitar courtesy of Jon Buckland. If there's one thing Coldplay do better than probably any band playing today, it's bring a song to a climax.

Where A Rush of Blood to the Head was something of a coming-out party for Buckland, X&Y further cements his position as one of modern rock's great guitarists. Buckland's shimmering guitar work is all over the album, and his layered sound adds tremendous depth to each of its 13 tracks –- complimented nicely by Martin's arsenal of keyboards, and the occasional string section.

Of course, the prominence of Buckland's effects-laden playing (particularly on "A Message" and "Low") makes it that much easier to compare him to The Edge, who mastered the swirling guitar wash more than a decade ago. And Coldplay's penchant for the anthemic means that now, more than ever, the band bears a striking resemblance to their arena rock compatriots, U2 (the fact that Berryman plays bass in a fashion virtually indistinguishable from Adam Clayton is fairly obvious as well).

The similarity, however, isn't as much of a hindrance as one might guess. Coldplay are tasteful borrowers, and the music on X&Y manages to capture a certain humility that isn't always evident in the more recent U2 albums. This may be because Coldplay have learned quickly how to hold back a little. Even their most bombastic songs incorporate moments of true songcraft, which either serve to heighten or release tension in both the music and the listener.

Additionally, Chris Martin's solemn lyrics, which, though definitely not immune to bouts of "twee-ness," tend more toward simple, personal notions about love and fear, rather than Bono's typically ostentatious musings on world affairs and other such nonsense.

The creative flattery doesn't end with the record's U2 references. As is by now well known, "Talk" is basically a cover of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love," and is actually one of the album's least inspired moments with its repetitive melody and guitar line, and somewhat perfunctory coda.

More cunningly, Coldplay have also worked in allusions to The Beatles (the closing of "What If") and Prince ("White Shadows," which is just a fantastic tune). Heck, with a slower tempo and a couple of congas, "The Hardest Part" could pass for a Peter Gabriel tune.

In this sense, X&Y, though hardly a work of stunning originality, is one that confidently shapes the best aspects of the band's predecessors and contemporaries into a sound that is indeed distinguishable as pure Coldplay – intelligent, modest and sweet, but also sublimely joyous and certainly anthemic.

Addendum: Some readers (mostly personal friends) have commented that more criticism should have been laid down against Chris Martin's semi-hokey lyrics. I agree that this aspect of X&Y is definitely the weakest, but (and this is just my opinion), unless they are either really intelligent or unbelievably abysmal, lyrics are some of the least important aspects in evaluating a rock album. To paraphrase Carl Wilson, being overly critical of words seems to be the domain of the jaded rock critic, who may or may not be have the technical training necessary to write about actual music on the same level. Point being, if the songwriting is strong and the playing is tight, I'm willing to forgive some bad rhyming or clumsy metaphors.

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Blogger The Fresh Young MikeyD said...

Great review as always Punk is Dead. I'll be sure to throw you some link love in tomorrow's Rock Snob rather than burry it in today's already published edition.

6/02/2005 5:13 p.m.  
Anonymous dog in water said...

I might agree that Coldplay resembles U2, or at least I would if Coldplay were robots approximating human emotions. I won't say more about this because apparently there are people who like U2 (and i'm only teasing).

But seriously, Coldplay obviously has some quality that makes them great. Is it songcraft? Well, take a listen to Hail to the Theif or Kid A, and (at least to me) every sound and note seem puprosefully thought out, determined to be exactly such, before they're heard. However, I don't get this from Coldplay. It seems they definetly know a great song when they hear it, but that too much of their song writing is based on listening to the music and identifying a good hook, or riff or backbeat or whatever. "Oh, this reminds me of that song we did, 'clocks', which was pretty good. Lets lay it down". Of course, that's holding them to pretty high standards. I guess i'm expecting them to be visionary or something. I really need a band to be visionary. Or at least play cheaper concerts. (Thanks for that British Sea Power).

6/03/2005 1:15 a.m.  
Blogger Punk is Dead said...

Dog in Water... maybe you should consider a career in arts criticism (though I fear your standards might be too high).

6/03/2005 10:29 a.m.  
Blogger kory said...

great review man. after listening to the record for over a week now, you seem to have hit the nail right on the head.

i'm just excited to get my hands on the ACTUAL record and lose myself in the liner notes. peace.

6/06/2005 1:27 a.m.  
Anonymous Allyson said...

i like reading your writing. It's always so colourful and leaves me with a head full of images that i get to toy with for the rest of the day while i'm drifting through tedium at work.



6/07/2005 11:24 a.m.  

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