With the benefit of hindsight it should have been almost laughably easy to see this one coming. Coldplay arrived fully formed: even when ploughing through the graveyard shift on the NME Premier Tour in January they already had the everything. Personable, self-deprecating stage manner? Check. Ready made iconography? The amp-topping illuminated globe makes a reappearance on the front cover of "Parachutes", spinning symbolically. Irresistibly catchy melodies and heartfelt melodies? Almost. Six months in the studio with Gomez's engineer has resulted in a finished product that has been meticulously buffed into something far greater than a mere replication of its grab-bag of influences.
Yes, there are swooping Jeff Buckley cadences here, but they never quite defy gravity in the way of the late, great one's. And the Radiohead comparisons aren't hard to fathom , except at no point does Chris Martin descend into Thom Yorke's technology-strangled ennui. He doesn't have to: he's young, in (and out of) love and has a knack for illuminating the darkest corner of a mild relationship breakdown unmatched by anyone this side of peak-period Wedding Present or Prefab Sprout.
There is some great, great music on "Parachutes". Coldplay are never better than on the opener "Don't Panic", whose insistent chorus of "We live in a beautiful world" places the band a planet apart from misery bandwagon jumpers like Travis. The remaining nine tracks range between the inspired (the field-cornering festival favourite "Yellow", "Shiver" and "Trouble") , the deceptively throwaway acoustic whimsy of the title track and a handful of songs that seem, in this exalted company at least, a little fragile and undernourished ("Spies", "High Speed"). Nevertheless, "Parachutes" has earned every column inch of acclaim it has deservedly received: it doesn't win the prize as the best debut of the year (neck and neck with Badly Drawn Boy for me, Doves still way out in front, but then again both have had nearly a decade's head start), but it's the kind of music, and they're the kind of band, that's incredibly easy to root for. Even the sticks-and-stones-wielding likes of the increasingly embittered Alan McGee, and his disingenuous comments concerning 'bedwetters', can't touch them.
COLDPLAY A Rush Of Blood To The Head (Parlophone)
If any album of recent memory appeared to have its greatness predetermined, Coldplay's second is the one. Following the global success of "Parachutes" and the obvious concern for his music that frontman Chris Martin displayed in interviews, there seemed to be far too much riding on "A Rush Of Blood To The Head", both commercially and critically, from inside the band and without, for it to be anything other than a complete success. And on initial acquaintance it doesn't disappoint, being the product of a far more musically and emotionally mature band. Martin explores, if only briefly, the world outside his cocoon of relationship instability on the pounding opener "Politik", and the long, flowing melodic lines that characterised their debut album have been snipped into short, clipped, repetitive phrases that seem informed by both Krautrock and systems music. As a band they sound so much more confident than the faltering, blinking group caught tentatively mapping out their abilities on "Parachutes". Where danger lurks in the intros - the thudding, "Bullet The Blue Sky" drums that preface "In My Place", or the dread hand of plodding piano ballad that opens "The Scientist" - they soon swerve deftly into more rewarding territory. As with the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, they seem to have maintained their broad appeal whilst successfully chipping away at the boundaries of what the consumer on the Clapham omnibus feels comfortable buying into.
And for three plays, it works. Then, on the fourth, a nagging suspicion emerges that maybe they've actually regressed, traded in a deal of what made them special in the first place - the winsome naivety, their sheer wide-eyed wonder at being in a band and playing music that people are willing to pay money to hear - for a sleeker, shinier, emptier sound. There's nothing as charming, humble and lovely as "Don't Panic" here, and equally "Parachutes" contained nothing as obviously misguided as the frantic, neo-New Wave "A Whisper", curiously bogged down by an inappropriate string arrangement. Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile once remarked how he had once erased an entire album's worth of material that was felt to be substandard. "It would've probably fooled everybody for about six weeks, it sounded stupendous, but there was nothing there". And for all its intricate melody and obvious craftsmanship, despite the way it seems, initially at least, to inflate the Coldplay sound to greater, grander proportions whilst still supplying the substance to back up this new bigness (compare and contrast with the second Doves album, for example, a rather less successful attempt at the same trick), I can't quite shake the feeling that "A Rush Of Blood To The Head" may yet reveal itself to have feet of clay.
COLDPLAY X&Y (EMI)
Coldplays third album is their most elaborate yet, in terms of both the music, spiced up by the tiniest sliver of Achtung Baby-style electronic reinvention, and also the packaging that contains it. X&Y is the first vinyl album Ive encountered to arrive in a slipcase, containing the gatefold sleeve proper and a poster. (I hope all that paper and cardboard is carbon neutral.)
What hasnt marched bravely forwards, unfortunately, is the quality of the lyrics. Rarely rising above the level of bland platitudes, empty and meaningless, theyre the musical equivalent of the dialogue found in Star Wars: Episode III Revenge Of The Sith, designed to offer the least possible impediment to global acceptance. To that end, much of X&Y makes Parachutes look like Blood On The Tracks.
What if there was no lies/Nothing wrong, nothing right drones Chris Martin on What If, a wafer-thin piano ballad that clunks but heres the kicker, not unpleasantly - like a lobotomised Imagine. Itd take a nation of Keane enthusiasts to hug it close to their hearts. No, hang on Swallowed By The Sea opens with the lines You cut me down a tree/And brought it back to me, perhaps leading the more optimistic listener to expect an environmentalists tirade about how deforestation causes tsunamis. No such luck: within seconds hes wittering on -with scant regard for SI units - about writing a song thats a hundred miles long. Can Martin actually sing these lines with a straight face? Pilfering the shimmering, shiny riff from Kraftwerks Computer Love for Talk and then transmogrifying it from dancefloor-friendly electronica into stadium-sized complaint rock by playing it on an electric guitar seems a depressingly retrograde step. Similarly, Eno is lured in to synthesise on a track called what else? Low, but unless you excavated the back cover small print youd never tell.
There are moments, brief and far apart though they may be, when the music carries X&Y, for example the graceful and majestic swell of Fix You, and the semi-acoustic untitled hideaway (which the internet tells me answers to the name of Kingdom Come). But even thats undermined by banal observations about wheels that just keep on turning and drummers who, shockingly, drum.
X&Y at least helps time pass, albeit slowly; it fills a void. But shouldnt music be about more than this? Heck, once upon a time even Coldplays music was about more than this. Gauche and awkward the bedwetting young band of Parachutes might have been, beset by Jeff Buckley and Radiohead comparisons at every turn, but in describing the personal they made it universal. Having fashioned a distinctive sound of their own a clean, empty music that looks stylish from a distance they suddenly dont seem to have anything to say.
Shack/Les Rythmes Digitales/Campag Velocet/Coldplay Cardiff University Student Union 25 January 2000