There isn’t anything wrong with Athlete beyond the fact that their music embraces rock’s narcoleptic side. If you’re part of the growing minority that expects rock to blast a hole in your speakerboxx, turn back now. Athlete don’t rock, they lull. They court emotional disillusionment like it’s the last girl left on the wall who’ll dance with you — all or nothing. That these guys hail from Britain connects two trains of thought speeding towards the same invariable conclusion.
See, a lot of British bands revel in this languid genre. But all of those bands are essentially one band: Coldplay. “Why sound like Coldplay?” It’s the third, but nevertheless most important, question I ask drummer/vocalist Stephen Roberts after his publicist keeps me waiting, international long distance, on my cell phone. Before I get to that, we exchange pleasantries though his accent is thicker than mom’s molasses.
Over in Europe, the first sentence to escape his mouth is “I’m in Cologne in Germany at the moment.” Christ, why did I think I could afford Cologne? I’m not getting paid for this, I think now. “It’s actually kind of managing to keep the rain away,” Roberts continues, oblivious to my financial situation. “It’s been pretty miserable.”
Where I am, Toronto, the sun is shining, though I’m resigned to glance at it through the windows. Enough about me. After hearing him describe a bout of dreary weather (the kind perfectly tailored to their music) it was time to push his buttons: “What about this Coldplay thing?”
“We understand it to a certain extent, particularly because the first single was a piano song,” Roberts says. “It’s kind of an emotive song and that’s what Coldplay do.” Exactly. Now, in a previous incarnation of this article, scrapped at the behest of my editor, I railed this band despite enjoying several songs. I might have been the only one, because as the critics weighed in, the album scored a combined rating of 42 at metacritic.com. Of course that was before the Coldplay, a band I don’t particularly enjoy, explosion and release of over-the-counter sleep aid X and Y. Too often we in the critic business try and pack bands into the box that came before, no matter how well they fit or don’t fit for that matter. That box is getting kinda crowded. But in this case, we were bang on and all deserve a hearty slap on the back. Whap!
Athlete’s decision to shove aside the guitar’s primal wail for the piano’s classical mysticism, whiny lyrics and sweeping layers of electro noise designed to reflect the banalities of modern life lumped them in with Coldplay. But Roberts was about to make a point.
“In the grand scheme of things we’re kind of more along the lines of Coldplay than I don’t know Metallica.” By golly, he’s right. “I do think that we consider ourselves our own band though, you know. We’ve been together for long enough that we have our own identity, so I guess on one level we’re not really threatened by it. At the same it is frustrating because it just seems like a quite obvious thing to say.” Obvious, yes, but until genres disappear — an unlikely occurrence — such stereotyping won’t disappear.
“It’s all right. A few years ago Coldplay were the new Radiohead, so…” It’s obvious where this was about to go and I’m hopping off before we get there. Except to say we need a new Coldplay like we need a new Radiohead, which is to say not at all.
When this album landed in my possession months ago, I listened to it as I shuffled to and from work. The thing appeared to be crafted with the traveler in mind. And so, with Roberts an ocean away, the closest we’d ever be to each other, I began part one of, what seems now, an imbecilic two-part query about the themes of an album titled Tourist.
“I guess one of the central things that it’s about is the experience of being away on tour and how that can affect your life, your relationships, and the way you see the world. There’s a lot of that in there.” Okay, but how did they boil down the essence of traveling into this album and more accurately into “Tourist”, a song which pitches me back to my own travels, where it would have served me well-positioned, as I was, just outside Amsterdam Centraal on a week-long sojourn.
“This European air it always warms my face I wish I could pass on / I will bring you stories and bleary eyed photos like a regular tourist.” From there it’s a snapshot of the sort of wide-eyed amusement and nervous baggage, the sort traveler’s lug around.
I ask Roberts if any particular event(s) inspired the song. “I think there are a couple of occasions actually. One of them was when we were in New York just for a week and usually one goes to New York it ends up getting — well, because the place is so full on and it’s a really sociable place — wrapped up in the whole thing really. You get so wrapped up in it you nearly forget you’ve got this other life at home, the people you’re missing, the people you care about.”
Now, with time running out, my bill increasing, and his end of the line exploding with squawking noises, I inquire why, with so many bands doing dance-rock, they chose to make a moody album?
“I don’t know really,” Roberts says. “I haven’t really thought about it. I think we’ve just kind of done what we do. I suppose there are a quite a few things coming out at the moment with that whole DFA [not Death From Above 1979] thing where rock music has a little more of a dance floor feel. I suppose we didn’t really think about what was going on when we made the record; we just sort of made what we wanted to do.” Unsatisfied with this response, I examine the wound I’ve just opened. “Can you explain that a little further?”
“In writing the songs some of the subjects were slightly darker or more downbeat,” he responds. “I think we are very aware to try and see the positive side in things really and to try and look forward as people and the way we deal with things.” True. Despite the brooding atmosphere Tourist inhabits, it is a positive expression, one that offers redemption in a collection of songs seemingly taking their cue from the ways our world has been simultaneously shrunk and expanded.
“We try not to get depressed and then shut down. I think that we always make an effort to kind of move on and keep your head up when things aren’t great. Take ‘Wires’, for example — [it] is about a potentially kind of tragic situation that Joel Plott had with the birth of his daughter. But the song is quite an uplifting song and hopefully that kind of thing comes through on the album.”
That’s what that song is about. Not long after this interview took place I rated the song on my iTunes. Back story alone it warranted a four out of five. Even now, as I re-write this piece in the wee hours of the morning, I can see, as Plott does, the “wires going in and the wires coming out of her skin” and I am touched. Athlete is not horrible at what they do, just not Coldplay comparable. In a world devoid of Coldplay they’d do just fine, though never close to Coldplay’s multi-platinum success.
Where once I felt compelled to write that Athlete was not what we needed, I am now numb. Most of my original feelings of the band have slipped from my buttery hands. I’ll acknowledge here that I largely neglected the topic of technology, computers, and the Internet, a form of traveling in its own right, and all major elements explored in the album’s artwork and songs. And so, at this point, I’ll leave it to you. Is Athlete your new Coldplay? I sincerely doubt it, but if you chose to do so, do it wisely because Keane is prepared to challenge. At the end of the day Athlete could just be another band briefly limping their way in (and then promptly out of) the hearts and minds of an already somnambulistic society. A society eking out a sorry existence in a scene from the zombie/slasher flick, traveling from one place to the next consuming all they can like the living dead. Who knows? The sun’s coming up and I need my rest.
You know, despite the narcoleptic qualities of X and Y and Tourist, this sort of prescription is in high demand. Which isn’t to say the music will make you want to doze, because it takes courage to explore that side of ourselves, the maps we’ve drawn to others, and the pain of modern life. And that’s all fine and Andy Warhol. It just ain’t engaging to someone who doesn’t fancy music-as-anesthesia. As Chris Martin put it, “It was all yellow” and, I might add, a tad too mellow for my daily consumption.