Two years ago Coldplay were touring their second album A Rush Of Blood to the Head at big American venues like Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden, and the likes of Brian Wilson were turning up to show their respect. The band had taken off in America, singer Chris Martin was dating an Oscar winner and sales of CDs and DVDs had nearly peaked at 19 million, but still, it seemed, the worry that blossomed into A Rush Of Blood to the Head and their debut Parachutes was everpresent. Martin apologised for being over-exposed in Britain and fretted over a backlash. But ultimately he was defiant, and told the crowd, ‘We are going to make such a bonkersly brilliant next record that I don’t care. Everything apart from the music is bollocks.’
Flash forward to June 2005. Martin is now married to that Oscar winner, Gwenyth Paltrow and together they have a daughter Apple, who recently turned one. And, after three years and a catalogue of sixty songs, there’s the most keenly awaited third album since Oasis’ Be Here Now. And with X&Y Coldplay have made good on their promise; it is, undoubtedly, ‘bonkersly brilliant’ stuff.
Whilst Be Here Now was a chaotic ode to the excesses of cocaine, X&Y is a record about fear and love, and, in true Coldplay style, near crippling worry. Despite such idiosyncrasies, and several moments, (see ‘The Hardest Part’) that echo 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head as Martin opens X&Y with the question, ‘You’re in control/ is there anywhere you wanna go?’ over heavy synthesiser reminiscent of 90’s ambient dance music, it is clear that Coldplay are tracking unfamiliar musical territory. Lyrically they’re in much the same place as they were with the previous two records, (vague, grand statements such as, ‘You know that darkness always turns into light’ and, ‘The tears come streaming down your face/ When you lose something you can’t replace’). But when drummer Will Champion dives into opener ‘Square One’ with a hypnotic drum beat, Guy Berryman joins in with a forward driving bass line and Jonny Buckland rounds off with a dipping and diving guitar line it is clear that Coldplay have become, well, loud.
It could be argued that A Rush Of Blood to the Head opened in a similarly brash fashion with the rolling, rhythmic piano chords of ‘Politik’ but the sound of ‘Square One’ is from another planet altogether. Like the CD’s puzzling tetris-inspired artwork it brings to mind an other-worldly kind of futurism. When Champion’s electric drum beat is almost drowned out by massive guitars and pounding organ, Brian Eno and Berlin-period Bowie come to mind. The song has even, for better or worse, been compared to Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android.’
Next song ‘What If’ starts with a fragile piano solo and sees Martin’s worry come to the fore, (‘What if you should decide/ That you don’t want me there in your life’). The song takes flight with a flourish of strings before building to a Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’-style climax. Already, it’s been dubbed this album’s ‘The Scientist.’ Indeed, the sentiment of both songs is similar, and formulated around a characteristically vague documentation of vulnerable love. Whereas ‘The Scientist’ explored love lost in wistful reverse, ‘What If’ sees the band clinging to a new kind of hope, (‘You know that darkness always turns into light’) that dominates X&Y. Whilst the fear of losing a loved one lingers in Martin’s mind, it seems that he is able to console himself with the very existence of the love that he fears losing. It’s a complicated, but interesting, binary that runs throughout the record.
‘Fix You’, (almost certainly an open letter to Paltrow after her father’s sudden death) is the album’s standout track and already confirmed as the second single, (the vibrant, but safe, ‘Speed of Sound’ was the first). In this case, the fear that colours ‘What If’ has come to fruition; a loved one has been lost. This is Coldplay’s finest rock ballad thus far and is sure to prove spine-tingling when played live on Coldplay’s imminent ‘Twisted Logic’ tour. The song gradually builds up with strings, acoustic guitar and organ before exploding into something truly extraordinary as Martin takes off with his instantly recognisable falsetto. The word, ‘epic’ comes to mind.
Next track ‘Talk’ is also a standout. It takes its melody line from electro-futurists Kraftwerk’s memorable ‘Computer Love’ around which a completely new song has been constructed. With its huge guitar and permeating bass line, stadiums won’t be big enough to contain it. It’s yet another variation on the fear/love theme, as Martin expresses anxiety over the ambivalence of the future, (‘In the future where will I be?’) and frets when he is unable to talk to, and find comfort in, a loved one. This time it seems that love has failed, and Martin is left of grapple with feelings of isolation and confusion.
‘Speed of Sound’, as mentioned earlier, was lifted as the album’s first single. In many ways, it’s one of the album’s weaker tracks, particularly because the piano is so similar to hit ‘Clocks’ that you can almost sing over it. But it’s because of its similarity to the material on A Rush Of Blood to the Head that it was chosen; in effect it acted as a bridging single between the band’s previous material and their distinctively new sound. And it worked successfully, being the most added song to Australian radio after just two days and entering the Top 10 in the US singles chart, making Coldplay the first British band to do so since The Beatles.
Much of X&Y has a hymnal quality, and ‘A Message’ is one such example. In fact, it borrows from Samuel Crossman’s hymn, ‘My Song is Love Unknown’ with its opening line, ‘My song is love.’ This is a song sure to produce a love or hate reaction: some will find it trite, others will find it moving. Either way, it’s unmistakably Coldplay and again displays an almost naïve belief in the power of love. As Martin so sweetly sings, ‘I’m on you fire for you’, one feels that the inevitable return to fear is, once again, just around the corner.
Closing track ‘Twisted Logic’, an obvious Radiohead rip-off, shows a darker, edgier side to the band. Martin sings ‘You go forwards/ You go backwards’ over a crashing mess of strings and guitar, and it all gets a bit confusing before ending abruptly. It’s a disappointing end to such a riveting album.
Fortunately, bonus track ‘Til Kingdom Come’ leaves the listener on a sweet, familiar note. Whilst the song, (originally written for Johnny Cash) is satisfactory in its simplicity, one is left still thinking of what has come before it: big, brash, futuristic, ambitious songs.
Whilst it’s not as experimental as the new White Stripes album Get Behind Me Satan, X&Y will come as a surprise to many Coldplay fans. As a whole it represents a welcome, daring move from the safety of their old material, and references to Bowie, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk and Neu have only enriched their sound.
X&Y makes a challenging first listen; at times it makes no sense at all. This is, however, exactly the point: it is both bonkers and brilliant. The chaotic opposition of love and fear is a continuous theme, and one that Coldplay does not completely reconcile, (to the betterment of the record). Indeed, they may not have solved the sum, but Coldplay’s X&Y proves a captivating equation.