Chris Martin’s band has been a punchline since that first fresh-faced beach walk, and there are some good reasons for that, writes Stereogum, following the release of Coldplay's latest song, Magic. Read on for the article, and discuss it at the Magic sub-forum now [thanks ihaveabono]
Stereogum continues: When your debut album sounds less like a spongy facsimile of Bends-era Radiohead than a facsimile of Travis, themselves a spongy facsimile of Bends-era Radiohead, you invite ridicule. When you and your movie-star wife name your child Apple, you invite ridicule. When your band dresses up like French revolutionaries and/or the Beatles, not just for promo photos but interviews too, you invite ridicule. And when you release a concept album about “the story of a war against sound and color by a supremacist government” and call it Mylo Xyloto, you have come to embody the very essence of ridiculousness. Such awkwardly polite young Englishmen playing such wholesomely saccharine music with such shamelessly grandiose ambitions were always destined to be written off as lames.
Martin knows this. As he told The Telegraph in 2008, “We aren’t cool and never will be.” But as Chuck Klosterman explained in his 2002 essay collection Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, it’s one thing to be cool and another thing entirely to be great. Klosterman presented Billy Joel as the evidence for his theory: Joel “has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness,” but as a songwriter he’s responsible for a baffling number of modern classics. Thus, Klosterman concluded, “there is absolutely no relationship between Joel’s greatness and Joel’s coolness (or lack thereof), just as there’s no relationship between the ’greatness’ of serving in World War II and the ’coolness’ of serving in World War II.” Ironically, in the first chapter of the same book, Klosterman goes on a rant about how much Coldplay sucks, a position he recanted in 2013′s I Wear The Black Hat. This wasn’t his rationale, but logically, he had every reason to revise his anti-Coldplay stance because Coldplay is exactly the same as Billy Joel. The fact that they are perilously uncool has no bearing on their greatness. And it’s time we all agreed that Coldplay is great.
The two low-key tracks they’ve released so far from their forthcoming Ghost Stories — the spectral “Midnight” and the groovy “Magic” — are among the best songs any musician has released this year. They are marvels of construction and execution, first-class singles that trigger the pop pleasure centers while incorporating sounds foreign to the Top 40. Do “Midnight” and “Magic” borrow heavily from Bon Iver and the xx, respectively, just as Coldplay has previously borrowed from indie-rock causes célèbre Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, LCD Soundsystem, and Animal Collective? (It can’t be just me who heard some Merriweather Post Pavilion in Mylo Xyloto.) Sure, but it’s just a higher-pay-grade version of what Radiohead does. Thom Yorke and the boys have spent their whole career gleaning inspiration from lesser-known talents (DJ Shadow, Liars, Flying Lotus) and repurposing them in a more accessible context, and they’re still widely recognized as one of the greatest bands of their generation. Why not cede the same honor to Coldplay? Is it because their irrepressible earnestness isn’t balanced out by cynicism? You might say it’s because Coldplay still throws themselves into goofy shit like the dancing in the “Midnight” video, but have you seen Yorke’s dancing lately? Or, like, ever?
The pair of moody numbers Coldplay debuted at SXSW, “Always In My Head” and “Another’s Arms,” are similarly triumphant, but excellence isn’t a new trend for this band. Every album in the group’s discography is loaded with classic songs, from the sleepy folk-pop of “Don’t Panic” to the gleaming neon theatrics of “Every Teardrop A Waterfall.” Speaking of that span: The band has traversed an incredible stylistic gulf over these past 14 years. Their songwriting has maintained its essential core of vague arena-rock sentimentality, but the aesthetic trappings have evolved daringly from Coldplay’s humble beginnings. Their one major misstep was 2005′s X&Y, on which they pushed the pap to the forefront and betrayed their more adventurous instincts, but even the relentlessly cloying “Fix You” is a jam. (Just ask Chance The Rapper, one of the many MCs who’ve pledged allegiance to Coldplay over the years.) Besides, after veering too far into mush they hooked up with Brian Eno and made 2008′s Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, as fine an art-rock achievement as we’ve seen this century and “exactly the record this band needed to make.” Go listen to the title track or “Lost!” or “Strawberry Swing” — they’re all fantastic. Shit, follow the thread further back and bask in the softhearted glow of “The Scientist” and “Yellow.” Power ballads don’t come any better.
It takes a special understanding of what moves the human spirit to accumulate two hour’s worth of songs that can bring an arena to its feet. Coldplay boasts that kind of catalog, and from the sounds of the early Ghost Stories material, it’s about to get even stronger. Some of that strength is due to sheer longevity — stick around long enough and eventually you rack up enough highlights that the lowlights start to fade out of memory — but that trick only works when you continue to release tremendous music, which is exactly what Martin and his anonymous bandmates have pulled off. Time has been good to those blokes behind “Clocks,” but they’ve been good to us, too.