Why is Coldplay still depressed?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
June 14 2005 10:34 AM

Melancholy Arena Rock

Why is Coldplay still depressed?

What's ailing Chris Martin these days?
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What's ailing Chris Martin these days?

There are 20 million reasons why a band sells 20 million records, but in the case of England's Coldplay, three stand out: They sound a bit like Radiohead, only you don't have to think as much; their lead singer, Chris Martin, is an exceedingly handsome and righteous man; and their huge, powerful songs walk that tricky divide between the private and the public. They are a handsome, righteous man's laments transmitted to the farthest reaches of the amphitheater, and nothing is lost in the voyage.

As such, Coldplay boasts one of pop music's most firmly entrenched fan bases, one which the band's record label, EMI, hopes will buy their latest record, X&Y, en masse and make up for what has otherwise been a disappointing fiscal year. This will probably happen. But it will not have happened without the tender protestations of Martin, who, when asked last month about his label's sagging profits, impatiently declared shareholders to be "the great evil of this modern world." It was a heroic, swashbuckling, and slightly hypocritical move from the man who has become known for his fondness for political causes: Buy our record, but hate the corporate machinery that it implies.

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Whittled down to lines on a résumé, Coldplay (which also includes guitarist Jon Buckland, drummer Will Champion, and bassist Guy Berryman) seems like a band worth rallying behind. The band members strike a modest, good-natured, and workmanlike pose; they don't allow their songs to be used in commercials; they play plenty of gigs for altruistic reasons; and Martin himself has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of clean water, forests, and fair trade—and against poverty, President George Bush, the war in Iraq, AIDS, and handgun violence. Beneath the opinions, there is still the matter of the music—those perfectly fragile, achingly rendered, arena-sized songs about mushy subjects that approach but never really achieve total sadness. While Martin takes his causes to the stage, scrawling some provocative note about fair trade on his hand or on the side of his piano, he rarely encodes them in song. Instead, the music of Coldplay traffics in the melancholy of the individual, a mythic individual who feels for all of us. And as the band's profile grows, the conceit of that individual grows increasingly difficult to stomach.

When we first encountered Coldplay, the contours of that individual still promised a bit of mystery. The band first blipped in 2000 with a pair of strong singles: the Radiohead-riffing fits and starts of " Shiver"belied a calm, confident grace, while the muscular "Yellow" tensed and surged behind Martin's versatile vocals. What distinguished Coldplay from other British rockers under the spell of Oasis and Radiohead (Travis, Stereophonics, Idlewild, Embrace) was the diversity of their sound—their ability to do quiet and loud with equal conviction. This was neither the day-seizing of "Live Forever" nor the existential dread of Kid A; it was more like the petty anguish of someone who copped their emotional pallette from the Smiths, but with the regenerative power of the amplifier substituting for all those fey parts. And it totally worked.

Their debut album, Parachutes, was released later that year and became a critical and commercial hit. After a grinding span of touring and recording, the band released their second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, in 2002. The album featured three catchy singles—"The Scientist," " Clocks," and "In My Place"—that instantly colonized your mind; there were enough smooth edges and open spaces to confirm Coldplay's quantum leap from young, moody rockers (signified by itchy guitar) to mature, moody rock stars (signified by piano). The conditions of their prior melancholy had presumably changed, but the song remained the same. Rather than sounding like a guitar band, they were beginning to sound like a Chris Martin band.

With X&Y, the devolution looks complete. As the band grows more comfortable with their billing as proper stars—"the next U2" is the most common tag—they grow more reliant on Martin, the only member with proper star qualities. And X&Y is a record that defers, tragically, to the singer. Many of the songs open with a spotlighted Martin unfurling his lyrical sadness before the band even has a chance to get into a rhythm, play a note or unpack their equipment. There are cavernous, wide-open spaces carved out of songs so that Martin's loud-soft-loud cries can evoke maximum drama. There are epic tissue-boxes of emotion, but no objective correlative to account for the tears.

Most of the album treads in the lost-in-love territory of trite tunes like "Fix You" or "The Hardest Part." " What If" borrows a device from the pop philosophizing of John Lennon's "Imagine," only it descends from depressing questions of space and time and Manichean divides to the more pressing issue: "What if you should decide/ That you don't want me there by your side?" There is nothing wrong with performing emotion in song—this is what pop music does. But there is something suspicious about overdramatizing the terms of those emotions. The band submits a brilliantly graceful, bluesy shuffle for the title track, but Martin's frail, overwrought haranguing can't possibly carry his lyrics about a flawed lover in need of fixing.

It's strange for a man as morally outspoken and well-meaning as Martin to defer to such generically pop instincts—to retreat to the ambiguous power of crying "Aaahhh." But it's almost stranger for him to offer a collection of songs infected with the same low spirits as 2000. The State of Coldplay has never been stronger and Martin, with his celebrity wife and new child, has cobbled together a pretty good life. If it's not the sadness of worldly affairs that gnaw at the aching heart of Coldplay's songs—and the lyrics suggest not—it can't possibly be his own life, either. Maybe it's those bastard shareholders. Worse yet: Maybe it's nothing at all.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.