There are few alternative rock bands who can translate their underground renown into commercial success, and fewer still who can crossover into mainstream popularity without having even made a name for themselves as an edgy up-and-coming commodity or cultivating a modest cult following on the live club circuit.
Nevertheless Coldplay achieved this feat, as their debut propelled them to the commercial zenith of the alternative rock pantheon. Much of this can be attributed to the tremendous success of the single Yellow which, in the tradition of Radiohead's Creep, acted as the group's calling card into mainstream awareness.
The Radiohead comparisons don't stop there, however; Coldplay have been compared to Thom Yorke and company since their very inception, as their brand of melancholic beauty resembles the gorgeous despair of tracks like Fake Plastic Trees and How To Disappear Completely. On a qualitative level Coldplay are a far cry from Radiohead, but they're also one of the few groups hyped as the successors to Radiohead's throne at the pinnacle of the alternative rock genre who are actually gifted enough to at least partially merit this accolade.
Coldplay's style is highly emotional, deeply moving in an organic fashion that few bands can achieve. This reliance on tugging on the listener's heart-strings doesn't, however, prevent the band from conjuring complex musical structures and ambitious soundscapes, as there's an overarching intelligence to the group's work that, rather than obstruct its emotional impact, actually reinforces it.
Unfortunately this intelligence does not extend to the band's lyrics, which tend to be familiar, prosaic and pedestrian, sometimes even entering outright awkward and cringe-inducingly embarrassing territory. This isn't a great liability, though, as Coldplay are far more about their music than lyrics, and thus the simplicity of Chris Martin's poetry serves as little more than a vessel for his emotional delivery and penetrating vocal melodies.
Given its status as the band's full-length debut it's unsurprising that Parachutes is afflicted with at least a modicum of filler, but the stronger material more than compensates for this defect. Don't Panic is a work of aching beauty and haunting resonance, and no matter how inane the frequent assertions that 'we live in a beautiful world' are on an intellectual level it doesn't dilute the rich emotional potency that Martin invests in the delivery of his words.
Shiver's manic instrumentation after the line 'don't shiver' is unforgettable, while Spies is a harrowing, ominous paranoid-anthem much in the vein of the Doors' similarly titled and similarly menacing opus, complete with a gorgeous yet terrifying coda that lasts precisely the right amount of time for maximum efficacy.
Sparks is the first unremarkable track, but it's still far from bad, while Yellow is almost universally known thanks to its ubiquity at the time of its release, emanating from every radio, mp3 player and Discman in hearing distance the moment it charted. Fortunately Yellow was eminently worthy of this warm reception, a truly unique song that marries catchy pop to the unorthodox approach that characterizes the best work culled from the alternative rock genre, thus making a stunning final product. From its colorful riff to its irresistible vocal melodies to its genial feel the song achieves beauty in a manner quite unlike most archetypically pretty anthems and is all the more rewarding for it.
The second half of the CD doesn't quite measure up to the preceding material, which largely accounts for the accusations of an erratic nature that have haunted the album since its release. Songs like Trouble and High Speed are quite strong if not as breathtaking as the likes of Don't Panic and Spies, while the title track is rather underwhelming (not that it aspires to that much).
We Never Change and Everything's Not Lost suffer not only from a moderate sense of blandness but also from their position on the album. The album sustains a strong level of emotion throughout its entirety, and thus the listener is bound to be emotionally exhausted by the time the final tracks come around, and thus it would take something spectacular to truly register with an audience on a deeper level.
While We Never Change and Everything's Not Lost are somewhat pretty they essentially feel like more of the same, and rather inferior at that. After the natural emotion that pours from almost every note on the album the final two tracks feel forced and calculated in their attempts at emotional resonance, never constituting the cathartic climax that they were clearly envisioned as.
Nevertheless Parachutes is a very strong product and a highly auspicious debut. The band's vision is one of haunting textures and devastating beauty, a vision that's clearly and adroitly realized throughout the better part of the album. While undoubtedly influenced by Radiohead the band establish their own unique identity throughout their work, immediately emerging as one of the premier ensembles in the alternative rock genre.
Following up any debut, let alone one as hugely successful as Parachutes, is a difficult proposition; if an already established group suddenly enjoys a surge of popularity then at least they already have a clear conception of who they are, a self-awareness derived from a healthy body of work prior to their commercial breakthrough. This clarity of vision enables them to remain focused on their strengths, pointing a way to a more comforting, knowable future.
If a group attains instant stardom from a debut, however, matters become considerably more complicated. On most first albums a band is still in the process of finding themselves, with a half-formed identity and a hazy notion of what creative direction best suits them.
For a band to achieve fame and fortune during this unsteady period leaves the group with quite a dilemma, uncertain of who they are or how to maintain the success that's suddenly been thrust upon them. They've never had the chance to quietly grow and mature, but rather were forced into the limelight in their embryonic stages, without the luxury of being able to make the natural early mistakes inherent to a groups' growing pains with any level of privacy and discretion.
This is precisely the fate that Coldplay was left with after the release of the smash hit Parachutes. Parachutes was filled with signs of future greatness, an album that revealed tremendous latent potential from Martin and company. But rather than take the time to hone their skills and evolve as a rock band the group were immediately compelled to return to the studio to produce an album of the same caliber as their stunning first outing.
There was no chance for growth or maturation or creative evolution, merely the unrealistic expectations of a massive audience who expected to instantly receive a comparable follow-up to Parachutes and a record company that was dead-set on appeasing them.
The group was faced with a conundrum, desperate to placate their fans and employers. There was no real chance to try something new, as that would risk alienating the fans who seemed to want nothing more than a carbon copy of Parachutes. Thus the only real option was the most common creative copout, providing their audience with the thinly veiled sequel they were transparently demanding.
Unfortunately few sequels live up to the standards of the originals, and A Rush Of Blood To The Head is no exception. It's far from bad, but its uncanny resemblance to Parachutes, both structurally and stylistically, simply serves to expose the album's inferiority to its predecessor.
Like Parachutes, A Rush Of Blood To The Head has a very strong first half, but despite the high quality of the alternative anthems on this sophomore effort the tracks fail to match the superior batch on Coldplay's debut.
Politik is a high quality affair musically; while lyrically it's a clumsy relationship/alienation anthem, with ham-fisted verses and infelicitous poetry utterly bereft of intelligence or insight into the weighty topics being addressed, as always with Coldplay this defect can be overlooked providing one focuses on the real, quite pronounced, merits of the song. An appropriately dark tone is sustained for the duration of the track, with plentiful hooks and a fundamentally solid melody. Politik doesn't reach the heights of its Parachutes counterpart, Spies, but it's still a stellar track marred only by precisely the same thing that mars virtually every single Coldplay song and thus shouldn't constitute a stumbling block for those who've followed them from the beginning of the band's careers.
In My Place feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of Yellow; it certainly fails at that endeavor, but it's still a good track, if not quite worthy of its huge success as the leading single from the album. It's Coldplay by numbers, but that in and of itself is a positive sign, indicating that the group has already developed something of a fresh identity for themselves, at least enough so that self-plagiarism can be recognized. Nonetheless the song is pleasant enough, but it fails to move me the way that the peak material on Parachutes had.
God Put A Smile Upon Your Face offers something different, a refreshing change of pace after a couple of retreads. Moody and edgy the track is an anomaly in Coldplay's canon, and quite a good one at that, with a somewhat menacing melody and an overarching cynicism and world-weariness.
The Scientist is a beautiful ballad, but one that achieves its beauty through far more conventional, predictable and pedestrian means than the band's better work. While it proves that Martin can transport the listener to aural ecstasy with nothing more than a few falsetto notes, it also reveals how uninspired the overall song feels, lacking the idiosyncratic nature that characterizes the group's best work. Beauty is beauty, no matter how it's achieved, and thus the track is still a good one, but it can't hope to be as moving as Coldplay's more distinctive material.
Clocks, however, is the zenith of the album, with a truly creative melody that simply radiates beauty while still managing to rock (in an unconventional way, of course, as it's hardly a distorted riff-fest). Marrying stellar vocal hooks to a gorgeous piano-driven melody the song is a highpoint in the band's oeuvre, and one of the only tracks on A Rush Of Blood To The Head that betrays the level of talent and ambition that informed the bulk of Parachutes.
To further solidify the relationship between Parachutes and A Rush Of Blood To The Head the second half of the album is markedly worse than the first. This isn't meant to deride tracks like Daylight, an accomplished rocker with psychedelic tinges, but rather bland filler of the likes of the band's ill-advised flirtation with country music, Green Eyes.
Warning Sign also has little to offer, whereas at least A Whisper is a preferable kind of filler, the brand that's clearly padding but is still sufficiently well-crafted that it can be enjoyed while it's on, an ephemeral pleasure that isn't ideal but at least couldn't be further from offensive.
The title track, however, is far from filler, a haunting, menacing number with ominous and threatening lyrics and a pervasive tenebrous atmosphere imbued into every word and note. It isn't a classic, but it reinvigorates the album at a time when it badly needs a strong song to escape from its creative rut.
Unfortunately, the album is reinvigorated to no end, as the final track, Amsterdam, is bland and forgettable, failing to capture one's imagination even with its ultimate transition into a more dynamic rock song. The song makes for a poor closer, ending the album on a note of tedium that's sure to embitter most listeners.
Thus the album is bipolar in a fashion similar to its predecessor, but with high points that fail to reach the level of the high points on Parachutes. Politik, In My Place and God Put A Smile Upon Your Face may be an impressive trio to open an album with, but they can't compare with the initial Parachutes triumvirate of Don't Panic, Shiver and Spies.
This pattern holds true through the remainder of the album, with Parachutes consistently overshadowing the considerable merits of its successor. A Rush Of Blood To The Head is still quite a good album, but as a sequel it's disappointing, and sadly never even had the chance to become something other than a sequel.
Coldplay wisely took their longest sabbatical yet after A Rush Of Blood To The Head, a hiatus that gave Martin ample time to pen a plethora of songs that could either be retained or discarded at his leisure. It's rumored that he wrote somewhere in the area of sixty songs during this period, a deed that theoretically would avert the consistency problems that had plagued his work since the band's inception.
Despite the extra breathing room afforded by three years bereft of deadlines and studio pressures the band still abstained from any major experimentation, and thus X&Y is hardly a radical departure for the group. While it's true they assimilated some minor influences, as evidenced by moments like the nod to Kraftwerk on Square One, at heart Coldplay left their core sound intact, preserving the style that had led them to become one of the most successful groups of the new millennium.
While X&Y is quite a strong album, even with the rumored sixty track surplus the CD is still rather erratic. Its highpoints dwarf its failings, however, and the result is an LP that's a good deal better than the band's sophomore effort.
As alluded to before, the opener, Square One, betrays hints of a Krautrock influence, in particular owing a debt to Kraftwerk; the song is still hardly a parody or homage, however, as a closer listen reveals only superficial tributes to the band in question. At its heart the song is classic Coldplay, albeit with more of a rock edge than the group are customarily associated with, a trend that surprisingly recurs throughout the album.
Square One is indeed a highlight, adroitly crafted with stunning vocal melodies and a rich sonic palette. While the song has a relatively complex structure each element gels perfectly, leaving a song that, more likely than not, the group would have been unable to produce a mere few years earlier. As mentioned before the track fails to branch out in new directions from a stylistic perspective, but nevertheless the song does demonstrate a certain refinement of the band's sound, indicating at least a modicum of growth and progress since their last outing.
Other highlights include the brilliant rocker White Shadows, which may very well be the best track on the album, the riff-driven, anthemic Talk and the album's first single Speed Of Sound. Nearly every track has something to offer, however, while even the nadir of the album at least betrays signs of artistry and craftsmanship.
For me, however, some of the album's most revered tracks constitute its low points. While What If and Fix You can be moving if one allows himself to fall under the songs' spells, I'm not inclined to permit them that liberty, as the tracks are, at heart, rather bland and sappy. They are, on some levels, beautiful, but it's a shallow, forced, artificial and manufactured beauty, owing more to adhering to the blueprints of standard balladry than any real emotion contained in the music. Every time Martin starts bringing soft intonations into his work most listeners seem to simply melt, and while this is a testament to his skills as a vocalist it's not indicative of any genius on a songwriting level.
Aside from these tearjerkers and a hidden track that had might as well remain hidden the remainder of the album is quite strong, perhaps even equaling the caliber of the band's superb debut. Not every song is a classic, but there's still more than enough to recommend nearly every track on the album.
Needless to say Martin's lyrics are still a liability, but on a songwriting level he remains in good form, and when it comes to Coldplay that's the most one can hope for. Parachutes likely had more full-fledged classics than X&Y, but the latter is somewhat more consistent, albeit with fewer moments of transcendent beauty. I've already lamented what happens most times when Martin attempts to be moving on his latest product, and while this might give Parachutes a mild edge over X&Y both albums are eminently worthy of occupying a slot in one's rock collection, depicting the subtle growth of one of the more impressive rock outfits to emerge from the alternative music scene.
It's always commendable when a rock group wants to artistically progress, but not all bands are capable of achieving progression of this nature on their own; furthermore 'artistic progression' is such a nebulous, subjective and thus ultimately meaningless phrase that without even a modicum of guidance most rock outfits who pursue it will invariably end up engaging in desultory experimentation and avant garde posturing, expending a lot of energy without even approaching any degree of artistic maturation or growth.
Ergo many rock groups end up seeking sage counsel when it comes to progression, and this is precisely the course that Coldplay took after the lukewarm critical reception that X&Y was the undeserving recipient of. The band were eager to collectively evolve as a rock ensemble, but were uncertain as to how to effect these changes, and thus naturally looked to others for advice.
This search for a sonic mentor brought the band to a man who is quite likely the greatest producer in the history of rock music, namely the father of new-wave and ambient, the ultimate guru of sound Brian Eno.
Eno doesn't appear to be quite as hands-on a producer as he's been on occasion; he isn't a full-fledged partner and equal collaborator as he'd been with David Bowie on the Berlin trilogy, and he likewise abstains from getting sufficiently involved to the point where he receives co-songwriting credit on some of the tracks as he had with the Talking Heads.
Thus his relationship with Coldplay is more akin to his work with U2, adding layers of sound to the band's music but being sure to only 'enhance' and never 'create.' The album is still very much a Coldplay product, but Eno certainly puts his stamp on it as well, as the two parties seem to have found an ideal balance on the creative and artistic end of things.
Eno's involvement leads to a far more sonically rich palette for the group to work with, as comparatively thin arrangements are replaced with a fuller, deep and considerably more layered sound. On a textural level the album is fascinating, as Eno, having spent decades honing his craft, is second to none when it comes to the structure and feel of sound.
This is all meaningless, however, if the songwriting that accompanies this aural revolution is in any way lacking. Fortunately Martin has grown as a songwriter since the na´ve yet precocious days of Parachutes, penning the most consistently strong selection of tracks of his career. Memorable melodies abound, made all the more rich and resonant through the guiding hands of Brian Eno.
Despite the consistently strong caliber of the tracks on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends there are few moments as immediately striking and instantly memorable as the peak material on Parachutes. This phenomenon can be attributed to the relative maturation the band has undergone, and while it may seem like an uneven tradeoff it's compensated for by the sheer quality and cohesiveness of the album as a whole.
The album begins with a celebration of the band's wondrous new sonic palette, an instrumental entitled Life In Technicolor that serves as a showcase for the group's newfound aurally expansive grandeur.
After this pleasant if slight track comes a parade of well developed, sonically intriguing and tightly performed numbers. From stellar multi-part anthems like 42 and Yes to the great first single Violet Hill the album remains captivating throughout, with nary a misfire to be found amongst its ten tracks.
The band's even made some strides in the lyrical department. The lyrics remain woefully bereft of much in the way of wit or intelligence, but at least they're seldom embarrassing or cringe-inducing, and that alone is cause for rejoice.
Ultimately the album is, in many respects, Coldplay's most accomplished set to this point, free of egregious blunders or painful misfires. While it doesn't quite scale the heights of old it's a consistent, highly entertaining affair immeasurably helped by the guiding influence of Brian Eno's genius.
The marriage of Martin's ever-improving songwriting acumen and Eno's unparalleled gift for sound manipulation and control results in a very impressive product that's also the first and most convincing indication of Coldplay's growth and maturation, signs that bode well for the future of the band.
The fact that Prospekt's March often comes packaged with Viva La Vida is rather telling, as this eight song EP is more of an extension of that album than a new or stand-alone venture. Every track on Prospekt's March was recorded during the Viva La Vida sessions, and there are also some alternate cuts of songs from that album used to pad the length of the EP.
You would think that an EP that functions more as a coda to a full-length release than a meaningful independent artistic statement would be wholly expendable, but what one must keep in mind is that Viva La Vida was Coldplay's best album, capturing the band at the pinnacle of their abilities. Thus some of this excess merit rubs off on Prospekt's March, proving that the inspiration that animated the group during those sessions wasn't limited to the tracks that made the final cut for the album proper.
Admittedly the overlapping songs tend to be rather extraneous. Lost is nearly identical to the Viva La Vida rendition save for the Jay-Z cameo that, in the interest of preserving my own sanity, I like to pretend doesn't exist. Lovers In Japan is equally superfluous, adding little to the already strong original cut.
Life In Technicolor ii, however, is another story entirely. This version adds lyrics to the erstwhile instrumental, and this works so well that I'm mystified as to why the vocals were ever omitted from the original in the first place.
The previously unreleased tracks are quite impressive as well. Glass Of Water, Rainy Day and Prospekt's March/Poppyfields are uniformly strong and would have been eminently worthy of inclusion on Viva La Vida. Now My Feet Won't Touch The Ground is somewhat lesser but still a pleasant enough acoustic number, while the instrumental Postcards From Far Away is too short to make much of an impression.
Thus Prospekt's March is a solid product that definitely merits a listen from any fan of Coldplay, hardcore or otherwise. It's hardly an essential purchase, but songs like Glass Of Water deserve to be heard and appreciated by more than a select few Coldplay enthusiasts, and the same goes for much of the material on the album. Between the previously unreleased songs and the rebirth of Life In Technicolor there's more than enough worthwhile content by EP standards, so few who acquire Prospekt's March are apt to feel cheated, which is always reassuring when it comes to products of this diminutive length.