I have a problem with Coldplay.
It’s not that they suck; they really don’t suck. They’re clearly talented musicians, and Chris Martin — as he proved all those centuries ago with “Yellow” — is clearly a talented singer.
What bothers me is not that Coldplay sucks, but that their records suck. I don’t understand why or how this happens. They’ve clearly got the skills to make really good records, and they’ve got Brian Eno producing them on this new one Mylo Xyloto and the last one, which I think was called A Perfectly Lovely Dinner Party With Friends or something similar. Eno is not known for producing crappy music. In point of fact, he’s known for goading relatively uninteresting bands (or rather band, or rather U2) into creating really good work. (For a comparison, look at the records U2 put out without Eno, which — aside from Boy and War — have all the charisma of an accounting seminar.)
So why in the name of Hell’s garbage truck is Mylo Xyloto so goddamn dull?
I have Coldplay on my iPod. I do. I’m comfortable enough with my sexuality to admit that, despite a decade of “You know how I know you’re gay, etc.” jokes about the band. Yes, they’re big ol’ pussies. And that’s okay. I find it amusing that people will crack endless jokes about Coldplay and yet have an artist like Bon Iver in constant rotation. I mean, Bon Iver is a giant pussy. Bon Iver makes Dan Fogelberg look like G.G. Allin. It’s music for girls with asymmetric haircuts to cry to when their boyfriend Tyler leaves them for his coke dealer, who is a dude. Apparently it’s okay to be a big pussy if you’re an American with a Grizzly Adams beard who records your albums in, I dunno, a fucking cabin in the middle of the Michigan forest or whatever the hell these kids think is “authentic”. But it’s not okay, it seems, if you’re a metrosexual Englishman permanently wrapped in Ben Sherman high streetwear whose family consists of a decreasingly famous actress and a child named after a computer company.
The Coldplay I have on my iPod consists of their previous album, which is actually called Viva La Vida (Death And All His Friends) (which we’ll get to in a minute) and a track from their first album called “Don’t Panic“. I really like this song a lot. It’s not just the Douglas Adams reference in the title (which Martin has done a couple of times); it’s the combination of the echoing guitar line and the lyrics and the way Martin sings “And we live in a beautiful world / yeah, we do, yeah, we do” in the chorus, in a way that suggests that he might not be telling the truth. It’s short as hell and lovely and I’ll fight anybody who suggests it’s not at least as good as a Radiohead song.
I don’t have “Yellow”, the band’s first big single, on my iPod, because it was impossible to be anywhere in the Westernized world in the early 00s and not hear that song playing. But it’s still a great pop single. The lyrics are odd without being irritating, the hooks are solid, and Martin’s voice is perfect, with that little falsetto yelp that approximates an Irish séan nos hiccup without actually being one.
So I know — I know, goddamnit — that Coldplay are or at least were capable of producing good music. Their position as a sort of diet caffeine-free version of Radiohead has been a running joke for a decade now, but that’s fine. They didn’t have to be Radiohead. But they could have been a really good Coldplay.
The problem, I suspect, is that Chris Martin wants to be liked by everybody. And, as Paul Carr pointed out to me the other day, people who want everyone to like them end up being liked by nobody at all, except Gwyneth Paltrow. Coldplay strike me as the type of band who remix their work endlessly and by committee, trying to achieve some kind of sonic Arcadia, a blissful aural landscape of perfectly stadium-friendly bottom end and hopeful, soaring guitars.
The result is a sort of musical version of the decorational accents they sell at Ikea in between the Billy bookshelves and the improbably small platform beds. It’s fine and nice and goes well with your lifestyle…but it’s devoid of any personality. It’s free from criticism because it offers nothing of itself. It’s wallpaper.
I got Viva La Vida because Eno produced it, and Eno is worshipped as a god in my household (or at least in the part of it that’s actually my head). I expected a revelation; I hoped that Viva La Vida would be Coldplay’s The Unforgettable Fire, the moment when they stepped up their game and became really interesting.
This was not the case. In fact, aside from the title track, the music slid off my brain like it was made of Teflon. Aside from the title track, I literally cannot remember any of Viva La Vida, despite having listened to it at least ten times all the way through. (Usually while cooking, which seems to be the ideal Coldplay listening situation, because their music is actually improved by the sound of sizzling hot oil.) “Viva La Vida” the song is almost interesting; to my ears, what it’s really missing is a harder beat, a more driving bassline. Without it, it’s music for car commercials.
I’m not going to tell you about Mylo Xyloto, because I got about three songs into it and turned it off. Like all of their post-Parachutes work, it was unlistenable, because it was completely devoid of any corners or edges for the mind to hook in to. It reminded me of those lifestyle-porn spreads in magazines like Dwell and Metropolis where bourgeois bohemians show off their exquisitely designed minimalist living spaces. It’s pretty to look at, but you have to wonder what kind of madness creeps in after a few months of living in a stainless steel-and-MDF universe. I imagine these people find themselves fighting the near-uncontrollable urge to grab a Sharpie and start drawing giant cocks on the unbroken expanses of off-white paneling that surround them. The same is true for Coldplay; I suspect that Mylo Xyloto would be endlessly improved by running it through a Squarepusher-style glitch plugin that caused it to skip and stammer.
Also, Rihanna sings on it. I know a lot of you are convinced that Rihanna is good, and that makes me want to go live in the goddamn Michigan forest with Bon Iver and the ghost of Mark Linkous and hoard a stack of Nina Simone records until you all come to your senses. Or die off like the dinosaurs.
This speaks to one of Chris Martin’s more annoying behaviors: namely, his public flirtation with American hip-hop and his bromances with guys like 50 Cent and Jay-Z. I have no idea whether this is all sincere and legitimate on a personal level, or some kind of surreal attempt to establish “street cred”, which is a concept completely orthogonal to the very notion of Coldplay, like the idea of the European Union attempting to look sexy at a party. Certainly his attempts to integrate American urban music into Coldplay’s oeuvre are an act of absurdist theater that would be offensive if it wasn’t such a fucking non sequitur.
And maybe a Coldplay record produced by Jay-Z might be interesting. (It’s a long shot, but hey, stranger things have happened.) I think Eno’s considerable talents are wasted on this source material. What I’d really love to hear is a Coldplay record produced by Squarepusher, or Burial — someone who could strip away the polish, make it ugly, confrontational in spots, make it not appeal to everyone.
They could do it, they really could. I’m convinced that, deep down, Coldplay has the talent to be remarkable. After all, who could have extrapolated Kid A from Pablo Honey, or Achtung Baby from Rattle & Hum, or the Gorillaz from “Boys And Girls”? Despite the reputation of the UK music press as being jeering and suspicious when a musical artist tries to rise above their station, British bands seem to have a lot more ambition at reinventing themselves every so often. And like U2 and Radiohead before them, Coldplay’s in a position to get their freak on if they so desire, to not only change their own artistic statement (or simply make one in the first place) but change the whole conversation of music.
If you’re not old like me, you don’t remember how completely goddamn weird Achtung Baby sounded after the stadium anthems of The Joshua Tree and the pompousness of Rattle & Hum. And yet, it was one of U2’s bestselling records…and you can see the way that it changed the musical landscape. Ditto with Kid A, which was the number one Billboard album for at least a couple of weeks despite being a skittering bleepy piece of Krautrock madness.
When you’ve gotten to a certain point, you can afford to fuck around, try new things, become a new idea. And I wish Coldplay would do it, because as it stands they’re poised to become the musical equivalent of a boutique hotel: a tasteful, lovely environment in which no one actually lives.
If you’re thinking of buying Mylo Xyloto, do yourself a favor and go buy the last couple of albums by Elbow and Jamie Woon‘s self-titled debut instead, and wait in hopes — as I do — that Coldplay will eventually produce something of lasting value, because this ain’t it.