This wasn’t supposed to happen. Coldplay was a pleasant sleeper success in the UK in 2000, and proceeded to do the unthinkable, exploding onto North American mainstream radio late that year, thanks to a contagious little song called “Yellow”, a song so goofy and simple that it seemed to get better and better the more you heard it. Coldplay’s debut album, Parachutes, was every bit of a charmer as the first single. Quiet, innocuously catchy, and so wide-eyed it was nearly nauseating, that album sounded remarkably assured for a band’s first major release. But when was the last time a new British band, heck, a new band from anywhere, was able to capably follow up a surprise hit album and live up to the lofty expectations foisted upon them by fans and critics?
“Yellow” was, and still is, being played to death everywhere. The powerful, melancholy “Trouble” didn’t chart as high in North America. The UK press is now obsessed with the White Stripes, Doves, and the Strokes. Hipster doofuses obsessed with UK rock are now scouring their local record stores for import copies of CDs by the Electric Soft Parade and The Coral. And I’m supposed to be the biggest hipster doofus of them all: a lowly schlub who gets a few free advance CDs while having the gall to call himself a Music Critic. I’m supposed to be all jaded and aloof, pooh-poohing this CD without a moment’s hesitation as I e-mail my editor to ask if she can get me a free copy of the Meshuggah CD so I don’t have to pay for it, lazy cheap sod that I am. But I’ve heard this album at least a dozen times, and I’m completely floored. Okay, Coldplay, you win. I surrender. You’ve compelled me to gush.
Parachutes was impressive, but Coldplay’s new album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, is stunning, the amount of growth from Album One to Album Two equally so. A year or so ago, the whole post-Radiohead UK rock thing seemed best exemplified by three bands: Travis (the cutesy), Starsailor (the whiny), and Coldplay (the down-to-earth), but as soon as you hear the first three notes of the album opener “Politik”, you’re hit with the cold hard fact that Coldplay have permanently shed the “copycat” label some people gave them. While the band’s influences can still be heard, theirs is now a sound all their own.
When the shimmering, pretty lead-off single “In My Place” represents the album’s weakest moment, you know you’ve got something extraordinary. Currently storming the charts a la “Yellow”, “In My Place” is another surprisingly simple song, carried by Jon Buckland’s chiming guitar and Chris Martin’s heartfelt vocals. It really shouldn’t amount to much, but Coldplay make it work very well. When Martin sings, “Please, please, please / Come back and sing to me,” he totally sells it, and you buy it. And why not? The song’s lovely.
But oh, those other 10 songs, they’re another story altogether. On the gently pounding (believe me, that’s what it sounds like) “Politik”, instead of gazing up at the stars, Martin changes the point of view, singing, “Look at earth from outer space / Everyone must find the place.” A new maturity is heard in Martin’s voice, with considerably less yodeling, and much more power. In the first of more than a few nods to Pink Floyd, the song’s bridge takes on a spacey, orchestral, Wish You Were Here vibe. Buckland’s lead fills highlight the wondrous “God Put a Smile on Your Face”, as the song’s chorus reaches heights that rival those of their fellow countrymen Doves. On the spectacular ballad, and potentially massive single, “The Scientist”, Martin does the best love-as-science metaphor since Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard did eight years ago (“I was just guessing at numbers and figures / Pulling your puzzles apart / Questions of science, science and progress / Do not speak as loud as my heart”), as the song gradually crescendos to a gentle climax, much like U2’s best work. “Clocks” and “Daylight” were apparently recorded under the guidance of Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, and both songs possess an influence from the infamous neo-psychedelic band (“Daylight”, especially, which owes a lot to McCulloch’s “The Cutter”).
“Green Eye” shifts gears a bit, with its acoustic, folky shuffle, and again, Martin’s sincerity more than makes up for his lyrical shortcomings (“Honey you are the sea upon which I float”). “Warning Sign” is a sumptuous, suite-like ballad that makes you realize how much we all miss The Verve, while the band Pink Floyds it up again on the rough-around-the-edges “A Whisper”. The dark, yet brilliant title track shows the most growth in both Martin’s lyric writing (“He said I’m gonna buy a gun and start a war / If you can tell me something worth fighting for”) and the band’s songwriting, the song deftly alternating between eerie silence and disturbing crescendos.
The quiet, understated, unpretentious beauty of A Rush of Blood to the Head caught me completely off-guard. Coldplay always seemed like a good band before, but not this good. The fact that the band had it in them to put out an album as assured, as exquisite as this one has to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. This album launches Coldplay into new territory, and it’s only a matter of time now that new “satellite” bands start ripping Coldplay off, hovering around the band’s orbit, waiting to see what they pull off next. On the magnificent album closer, “Amsterdam”, Martin sings, “Oh, my star is fading.” You’re much too modest, Chris. Coldplay is just getting started.