Before I commence arbitrarily rating the minutiae of Coldplay’s career using totally subjective and occasionally silly criteria, I want to briefly address how people talk about Coldplay. Because this is a band whose narrative has been framed almost entirely as a defense against those who hate Coldplay. For instance, when Rolling Stone published a lengthy interview with Chris Martin in 2008, the headline was “The Jesus of Uncool,” which seems vaguely insulting to Chris Martin and vaguely complimentary to Nick Lowe. Even people who like Coldplay concede many of the criticisms, that this is a hopelessly white bread, fatally wussy-ish band.
I’ll concede this as well. However, “white bread” and “wussy-ish” doesn’t necessarily preclude a band being “good” in my book, particularly if the band in question happens to be skilled at making songs that are commercially popular and critically unfashionable. The fact is that Coldplay is usually attacked for what it is rather than how it performs the tasks it has set out to achieve. Yes, Coldplay songs tend to be softly played dirges that pad along with the kinetic urgency of slippers sliding across a vinyl-covered kitchen floor on a lazy Sunday morning. Coldplay songs are often soppy and occasionally soporific. They will not make you feel as if you can run a marathon, bench-press 300 pounds, or sleep with the person you’ve been dying to sleep with. Coldplay songs might indeed make you feel less awesome than you really are, not more, which is a pretty big flaw for a band that plays ostensible “rock” music.
However, if you like softly played dirges sometimes (because softly played dirges, like any kind of song, are not inherently evil and can be executed well in the right hands), Coldplay does them about as well as anybody.
So, a week ahead of the release of Coldplay’s sixth studio album, Ghost Stories,1 let’s begin the very important process of determining whether this band is overrated, underrated, or properly rated.
A stream of Ghost Stories appeared a few hours after I turned in my column yesterday. As of this writing, I have listened to it exactly once. Obviously, I can’t tell how this album is “rated” yet, because people are just hearing it now for the first time. As for my own very early impressions: There is a song produced by Avicii called “Sky Full of Stars” that I hate at the moment but I’m sure I’ll end up inexplicably liking after I play the record a few more times. The other songs are pretty downbeat. I suppose this will be interpreted as a comment on Martin’s failed marriage. But mostly Ghost Stories just seems flat and maybe even uninspired.
I was under the mistaken impression that Coldplay was briefly considered hip immediately after the release of its debut album, Parachutes. I swear I remember them having that “trendy British band” shine for maybe a half-minute, back when there was such a thing as a “trendy British band” shine, right before “Yellow” infiltrated the sexual fantasies of cool moms everywhere. I know for a fact that “Trouble” was utilized in an early episode of The Shield, so at least Coldplay wasn’t considered macho antimatter quite yet. Alas, my memory was totally wrong. Pitchfork’s review of Parachutes begins thusly: “Pretty, lovely, fine, fair, comely, pleasant, agreeable, acceptable, adequate, satisfactory, nice, benign, harmless, innocuous, innocent, largely unobjectionable, safe, forgettable.” Like that, a career’s worth of backhanded compliments and damningly vanilla insults was set in tapioca-colored granite. By the way, out of all those words, only the first, second, third, fifth, and seventh truly apply to Parachutes. Because, fuck it, this is my favorite Coldplay record. If I were to make a list of the top 10 Coldplay songs, half would come from this album.2 Parachutes established Coldplay as the new century’s foremost creator of oversize anthems imbued with oversize melancholy for (soon-to-be) oversize audiences. It declared the band’s intentions to be a (mostly) unapologetic middle-of-the-road act — hardly glamorous but undeniably utilitarian in its commitment to making melodic, sentimental, and instantly accessible music that fits cleanly in the lives of a wide swath of regular people around the world straining majestically against the mundane emotional parameters of their regular lives. UNDERRATED
A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
My top 10 favorite Coldplay songs, in descending order: 10. “Strawberry Swing”; 9. “Paradise”; 8. “High Speed”; 7. “Major Minus”; 6. “Lost!”; 5. “Shiver”; 4. “Trouble”; 3. “Don’t Panic; 2. “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face”; 1. “Everything’s Not Lost”
Critics were kinder to this record, I guess, because they believed it was better. But there are other (possible) mitigating factors: Parachutes was a big hit, Radiohead wasn’t making pop-rock records this grand (or popular) anymore, and it suddenly seemed like similarly mopey British bands like Travis had jumped on Coldplay’s bandwagon, when in fact Travis was around for three years before the first Coldplay record.3 Coldplay seemed like a big deal but enough of an underdog that hating them (for now) seemed gratuitous. Rush holds up in retrospect: “Clocks” and “The Scientist” are by far the decade’s most convincing examples of piano-y arena-rock pomp and circumstance, and overall the album is basically Honky Chateau for the Lion King generation. The question is, does A Rush of Blood to the Head deserve its reputation as Coldplay’s best album? I’m going to say no. The first half (which has all of the hits plus the great “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face”) is undeniable, but I usually check out after “Green Eyes.” Also, if any Coldplay record is going to take the hit for James Blunt, the Fray, Snow Patrol, and other less notable practitioners of simpering Grey’s Anatomy balladry, it might as well be this one. OVERRATED
Does anybody remember Travis? Travis’s second album, The Man Who, seemed like the best Travis album ever when it came out in 1999. But it was really the third-best Coldplay album.
This is where Coldplay officially attempted to U2-ify itself and succeeded in the worst possible way by making its own Rattle and Hum. Not in the “we’ve taken to wearing black vests over our naked torsos in the company of B.B. King” sense, but rather in the “we’ve placed our accumulated goodwill in a Dumpster and set it on fire” sense. To be fair, X&Y could’ve been the second coming of The Joshua Tree and still triggered a wicked backlash. Coldplay had simply reached that level of stardom, where people who might otherwise not feel inclined to have an opinion about you start to resent how you’re suddenly fucking everywhere. It’s less about who you are than you signifying what’s generally annoying about media overexposure. I’ve long theorized that the part in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (released just two months after X&Y) where Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, and Seth Rogen’s horrifying goatee laff it up about how liking Coldplay makes you gay was the tipping point for public declarations of hatred for Coldplay. Like that, “Coldplay sucks” became a default position for “interesting” people to adopt; observing that this band was “boring” became a way for boring people to prove that they weren’t really that boring.4 There was also a caustic review in the New York Times by Jon Pareles where he declared Coldplay the decade’s most insufferable band, paying an unwitting compliment to other, arguably more deserving parties. And, yes, Chris Martin marrying Gwyneth Paltrow and naming his first kid Apple was like sending the world a personalized invitation to a “Please Kick My Ass” party. All of this means that I really, really want to argue that X&Y is underrated. But I can’t. I admire the hubris of quoting “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” at the start of “Square One,” nodding to 2001 and (perhaps unknowingly) Elvis Presley’s “fat Elvis” period. And “Low” is a quality deep cut I never hear anybody talk about. But overall, X&Y was precisely the inarguably bloated, pompous misstep that the band’s critics were waiting for. PROPERLY RATED
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008)
Martin had a pretty good retort to the 40-Year-Old Virgin bit in Rolling Stone: “I would be worried if we only appealed to very straight right-wing white men.”
The best thing about making a bad record is that when you make your next record, you receive immediate bonus points in the press for acknowledging that your last record was kind of stinky (which carries the implicit promise that the new one is not at all stinky). So when Chris Martin met with reporters to promote Viva la Vida, he admitted to Spin that during its X&Y period Coldplay had “[turned] over too many of the decisions to the wrong people” and confessed to Rolling Stone that “we were bigger than we were good,” which (consciously or not) parroted the magazine’s own criticisms in its review of X&Y. The self-deprecation routine worked: Viva was much better received by critics after it was sold as a “reinvention” of Coldplay’s monochromatic sound, which no doubt showed signs of exhaustion during X&Y’s sleepiest passages. But in retrospect, Viva la Vida sounds like what it is — “just” another Coldplay record, for better or for worse. How you feel about this album is likely tied up in your feelings about Brian Eno, Viva’s producer, later described by Martin as Coldplay’s “teacher.”5 If you’re inclined to view Eno as some kind of oracle for the rock vanguard, Viva by association might appear “risky” or “experimental.” If you’re inclined to view Eno more cynically, as a Jiminy Cricket figure for superstar rock bands pretending to be avant-pop groups, Viva might subsequently appear to be a minor deviation at best from the status quo. The truth is somewhere in the middle — “Strawberry Swing” and the title track wouldn’t have fit on Coldplay’s previous records, but they’re still big, dumb, emotional, and ultimately pleasurable ballads that provoke strangers to wrap their arms around one another at big, dumb, emotional, and ultimately pleasurable gatherings. PROPERLY RATED
Mylo Xyloto (2011)
“First and foremost, we do anything he says,” Martin told Pitchfork in 2011.
Easily Coldplay’s most ridiculous LP, though to the band’s credit at least 40 percent of that ridiculousness seems to be intentional. For starters, Mylo is kind of sort of a rock opera. Now, I never pay attention to Coldplay lyrics, because being a Coldplay fan can be embarrassing enough sometimes. But from what I gather after many listens to this record (it’s probably my most-played Coldplay album at this point), the plot involves a gang of “lost boys” with names like Charlie Brown and Major Minus who wander a dystopian hellscape in search of euphoric, synth-heavy intercourse with Rihanna. Don’t quote me on that, though. I’m probably way off.6 What I do know is this: (1) This is the only Coldplay album that can be accurately described as “fun”; (2) the Rihanna song is better than it gets credit for; (3) Coldplay is better at integrating pop and dance music into its aesthetic than U2 or Radiohead, and this should be acknowledged more than it is; (4) by writing a song called “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” Chris Martin proved he was better at making fun of Coldplay than Seth Rogen ever will be. UNDERRATED
The Live Show
I’ve never seen Coldplay live. So my judgment here is based strictly on video evidence. Please apply grain of salt accordingly.
“Everything’s Not Lost” (2003)
So, it’s not that I don’t want to see Coldplay live. Coldplay just never seemed like a band I had to see live. And this clip confirms why. This is one of my favorite Coldplay songs, but seeing it bashed out in front of an audience does nothing to enhance my enjoyment. It just sounds like a louder version of the record. C’mon, Coldplay, can I at least get one talk box solo to liven things up a little? OVERRATED
“In My Place” at Live 8 (2005)
The drums sound great. Otherwise, I’m not interested. Have I ever mentioned that I hate seeing babies at rock shows? It makes my paternal instincts kick in immediately. I don’t care if it’s your dad up there. Get Apple and her stupid headphones out of there, Gwyneth. OVERRATED
“Yellow” at the Steve Jobs Memorial (2011)
Sorry to go on another digression, but: The cult of Steve Jobs creeps me out. I predict that people will be wearing Apple computers around their necks like good Jobbites in 2,000 years. And these followers will declare the day that Coldplay played the ancient hymn “Yellow” at our Father’s funeral a holiday, and share the parable about how Jobs declared the song “shit” before waving his hand and turning it into gold. Anyway, this is just OK. PROPERLY RATED
Chris Martin and Michael J. Fox, “Johnny B. Goode” (2013)
Is this good? I can’t tell. Back to the Future nostalgia is blinding me. Just to be safe, let’s not call Marvin Berry about this one. PROPERLY RATED
EPs, B Sides, and Outtakes
With the possible exception of mixtape rappers, nobody works harder than British rock bands when it comes to generating a steady stream of nonalbum material. Coldplay is hardly the Smiths or Oasis in that regard, but there are enough gems tucked inside EPs and import singles to warrant a cursory Internet search. (A Rush of B-Sides to Your Head is among the easier fan-made compilations to track down.) “Bigger Stronger” (from the pre-Parachutes EP, The Blue Room) is the closest Coldplay ever came to directly ripping off The Bends. (This is not a criticism.) “1.36” (a B side of the Rush of Blood to the Head–era single “In My Place”) might be the single hardest-rocking song in Coldplay’s canon. (This is not sarcasm.) And there are plenty of perfectly fine low-key strummers like “See You Soon” for fans to cobble together a decent “bonus” Coldplay LP. UNDERRATED
Two things are immediately apparent about Coldplay videos — there’s usually some sort of visual “trick,” and there are usually lots of close-ups of Chris Martin’s face. Therefore, we must judge Coldplay’s videos based on visual trickiness and proximity to Chris Martin’s grill.
The video starts dark and grows lighter as the sun rises over a beach, which is nice enough but not very tricky. The most alarming part of “Yellow” is the first 19 seconds, when we don’t see Chris Martin. Where is Chris Martin? Has he drowned? Have the authorities been notified? Nope, there he is! What a relief. Now, let’s stare at him walking and lip-synching for the next four minutes and 11 seconds. PROPERLY RATED
You want Chris Martin’s mug? How about a bird’s-eye view of his nostrils? “The Scientist” starts out extremely face-y and then becomes extremely tricky, with that forward-backward visual device that the Beatles used in their videos when they were eating LSD for breakfast. But we almost never don’t see Chris Martin, making “The Scientist” the ideal balance of trickiness and faceiness. PROPERLY RATED
On one hand, this is maybe the trickiest video Coldplay has ever made. On the other hand, it has a serious lack of face. The trickiness-faceiness equilibrium is way off. OVERRATED
This video begins promisingly, with a medium close-up on Chris Martin. But the face time at first appears to be inconsistent — the plot about the girl and her abusive husband takes us away from Chris Martin’s telegenic features far too often. And the literal magic tricks7 threaten to overtake the whole enterprise. What’s that? Chris Martin also plays the husband? We were looking at him the whole time? That’s a very tricky way of delivering Chris Martin face time! Well done, “Magic.” UNDERRATED
The People in Coldplay Who Aren’t Chris Martin
Contrary to popular belief, there are members of Coldplay who aren’t Chris Martin. Even if you don’t count Gwyneth Paltrow (who surprisingly isn’t a member of Coldplay), there are three other people in the band. I’ve listened to Coldplay for 14 years and it’s my job to memorize music trivia, and even I couldn’t name all the band members until I started researching this column. Below, I ranked the non–Chris Martin members of Coldplay based on whether I had to look them up on the Internet to confirm their first, last, or full name.
1. Will Champion
I must admit to feeling some pride that the one non–Chris Martin member of Coldplay I didn’t have to look up at all was the drummer. In the immortal words of James Brown, I’m always in favor of giving the drummer some.8 In spite of Coldplay’s non-funky, non-rocking reputation, Champion is a pretty good timekeeper. He was actually fired before the release of Parachutes because of his supposed lack of technical proficiency, and then rehired when Coldplay remembered that it was Coldplay and not Tarkus-era Emerson, Lake & Palmer. A 2005 Rolling Stone profile includes a rep-building anecdote about Dave Grohl approaching Champion at a music festival and complimenting his drumming. It’s not clear whether Grohl realized Champion was in Coldplay or thought he was being nice to a contest winner backstage. But the compliment stands. UNDERRATED
2. Jonny Buckland
I challenged myself to somehow work a reference to James Brown into a Coldplay column. I must admit to feeling some pride about this as well.
I knew Coldplay’s guitarist was named “Buckland,” but Google had to help me on the “Jonny” part.9 I doubt Buckland would be offended by this. By all accounts, he’s a very unassuming person. In a 2008 Rolling Stone interview, Martin talks about how he and Buckland lived in the same building in college, and Martin didn’t realize Buckland played guitar until he came across him strumming away one night at 3 a.m. “I was like, ‘I didn’t know you played guitar.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I don’t really tell anybody.’” Buckland carries that same un-flashy style to Coldplay’s records. Whatever Eddie Van Halen had at the start of “Hot for Teacher,” Jonny Buckland’s playing has the exact opposite amount of dynamism. UNDERRATED
3. Guy Berryman
I held out hope that I had mistaken “Buckland” for “Buckethead.” Buckland could be Buckethead, for all we know.
He seems like a nice guy. I’ve learned that he likes to drink and collect 45s. I also learned that his name is “Guy Berryman,” because I had no clue who the fuck Coldplay’s bassist was until I wrote this. OVERRATED10
It’s probably fair to say that all of the non–Chris Martin members of Coldplay are underrated. Then again, it could be argued that simply being in Coldplay makes a faceless instrumentalist overrated if that person hasn’t done anything to justify that level of exposure. Sorry, Guy, I find the latter argument more persuasive.
Chris Martin’s Marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow
Again, Gwyneth Paltrow is not and never has been a member of Coldplay. But the Martin-Paltrow union is the one bit of Coldplay-related knowledge that everybody seems to have. Now that the marriage is apparently over, Martin will likely be less famous, which won’t affect Coldplay’s popularity but will probably keep him out of the tabloids. This seems like a win if you regard Martin or Paltrow merely as pop-culture abstractions and not as human beings — otherwise, it’s devastating. When Martin and Paltrow were together, it was fashionable to disparage the couple as the epitome of so-called “limousine liberalism,” which naturally rankles a proletariat resistant to rich people telling them not to eat cheeseburgers. Call me a sap,11 but I actually thought their relationship was kind of sweet. In interviews Martin claimed that Paltrow was his first serious significant other; he got married just four years after having sex for the first time. I don’t care if you’re a rock star or some anonymous schlub; if you wait until your early twenties to have sex and then marry the first person you ever spent serious time with, that relationship is going to be intense. Chris and Gwyneth really seemed to be strongly into one another for a while. He wrote “Fix You” for her after her father died, and as corny as that song is, 99.9 percent of husbands will never present a gift like that to their wives in their entire lives. In terms of how much prominence this relationship has in Coldplay’s image, it’s OVERRATED. But as an actual marriage between two actual people, I say UNDERRATED.
The Chris Martin–Jay Z Friendship
I realize that some of you have already called me a sap for writing 3,800 words on Coldplay.
Are they really friends or is this more dastardly Illuminati propaganda? I have no idea. Jay Z did invite Martin to sing on a song called “Beach Chair” on his worst album. And Martin invited Jay to rap on a remix of “Lost!” from the Prospekt’s March EP. Chris called Jay a “super cool guy” in Rolling Stone in 2011, and Jay probably thinks Chris is at least “decently” cool. And they’ve played shows together and even rode the subway together once. That the idea of these guys being pals is inevitably described as “unlikely” or “weird” or “huh?” seems somewhat racist. By virtue of being ginormous pop superstars, Chris and Jay have more in common with each other than they do with all but 100 or so people in the entire world, no matter their backgrounds. OVERRATED
Chris Martin on Extras
Chris Martin’s nonfiction persona doesn’t seem realistic in a fictional context — he bends over backward in media appearances to appear humble and deferential. But when Martin played himself on Extras, he finally had an opportunity to play the smug, d-bag persona more commonly associated with famous rock singers. He’s funny in the episode, but in no way does it seem like a satirical version of Martin. A more accurate self-parody would’ve been to have Martin beg to fetch Ricky Gervais’s coffee. OVERRATED
“Fix You” on The Newsroom
Think of the most obvious way for a TV show to use a Coldplay song. Now triple that obviousness. Dip it in cheese sauce. Triple it again. Cringe until you curl into a fetal position. Feel the “Fix You”–Sorkin singularity until your arteries completely corrode. Queue up “Fix You” for your own funeral. PROPERLY RATED
That Equal Sign on Chris Martin’s Hand
Are trade practices among nations and multinational corporations now completely fair? I thought so. OVERRATED