X & Y
t once awesome and banal, Coldplay’s third album is the sound of life today. Or, if not quite that, then the sound of British rock today. Look at the reams of imitators and coat-tailors and resurrected inspirations for proof; Coldplay, meek and mild, somehow bestride the lot like a shy colossus.
Much has been made about Coldplay redefining their sound for X&Y;, but while the Kraftwerk-pinching teaser “Talk” and first single “Speed Of Sound” point towards a luscious, technologically aware, synth-driven aesthetic, any development is purely superficial—X&Y; is the third Coldplay album and sounds as you would expect for the most part. The basic songwriting on show here is essentially the same as ever; mid-paced, desperately sincere and earnestly simple, decorated with piano and passionless falsetto, only now with more detours into maximalist, synth-soaked modern rock epics cut from the same cloth as “Clocks.”
If anything on X&Y; suggests a new direction it’s opener “Square One,” which starts like Spirit Of Eden made for children on a BBC Micro, and manages to avoid following an obvious path for its five-minute length. It’s strangely rousing and dynamic, but still very much the work of the same band, albeit evolved and aware. Lyrics aside, it could have been cut straight from Radiohead’s third album. “Square One” is immediately followed by the dishearteningly Coldplay-by-numbers ballad “What If” though, undoing much of the good work set in place by the digital guitar sheen of the opener. The modest piano and a simple, repetitive melody could be from either of the band’s previous albums (or, if I was being cruel, from Life For Rent by Dido), as could the prosaic lyric, and after two minutes or so the tune builds to exactly the kind of climax you’d expect, Chris Martin cooing like a politely upset turtle dove while his band play circular brush-strokes behind him in rich magnolia.
If there is a development to the songwriting on X&Y; it’s that the band seem to have learnt to climax more effectively than they have in the past, several songs building to heady, layered crescendos where before they would have repeated to fade. “Fix You” opens with padding keys and keening concern, simple, yes, but ever so sweet too, quietly and slowly moving towards a strange refrain of “lights will guide you home / And ignite your bones / And I will try to fix you”. All the while it ascends, before breaking open to the sky and rushing upwards. It might, just might, be the best thing they’ve ever done, but even so it never truly breaks from its predefined route into spontaneity.
Other highlights include the muscular “Talk,” the arrangement hardened and the lyric made less inarticulate than on the version that was leaked towards the start of the year, and the Eno-touched “Low,” which, unsurprisingly, echoes Bowie’s Berlin period but with the Nietzschean unease surgically removed. “White Shadows” and “Speed Of Sound” further cement the futurist aesthetic; shiny, clean, gargantuan attention to detail, avoidance of real pain and passion in favour of anaesthetised but delicious and hollow melancholy and awe. The title track takes a slightly Beatles-esque diversion, seemingly aping three or four tracks from Abbey Road all at once, while “Twisted Logic” is another song that could be cut from OK Computer.
Of course Coldplay still have their faults, and they are the same faults as before. Melodies seldom take unexpected turns; the band still resolutely refuse to really rock, instead playing safe and tasteful as you would expect; lyrics are still so bland as to be annoying (the “fly / why / sky / pie”-style rhyming inanities of “Swallowed In The Sea” are a particularly good example of GCSE poetry); the incredibly expensive production job can cause whole swathes of the album to pass you by without you noticing, because it seems so unreal, so fabricated—“The Hardest Part”, as accomplished and pretty as it is, is blandness personified and could have come from an Orwellian machine programmed to write a Coldplay song. At thirteen songs (hidden track “Til Kingdom Come” was written for Johnny Cash) and over an hour in length, X&Y; is also too long, but many bands fall into the trap of believing in their own bloated magnificence come their third album (Be Here Now, OK Computer), and there is still enough polite humility here to forgive them.
Chris Martin is still busy being the busiest man in rock (while his bandmates bask in comfortable anonymity), a privileged child grown into the multi-millionaire frontman of the biggest band in the world, a filmstar wife, oddly-named daughter and armful of good causes trailing in his wake. I doubt he ever—scrub that—I’ve been told he never gets time to look at what’s going on around him, to pause and soak it all in. He’s still singing songs for the “lost and hurt and lonely too” despite, one would assume, being none of those things himself anymore. But who knows? A cynic would say that marrying Gwyneth Paltrow was the best career move he’s ever made. I’d say X&Y; was now. I can’t see a future in which this record doesn’t further cement Coldplay’s position, but it’s a good enough record that its inexorable progress doesn’t bother me half as much as it could.