Graded on a Curve: Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head

Chris Martin of Coldplay has his fair share of detractors, but I’m not one of them. The fact is, I’m head over heels in love with the man. And I know precisely when it happened. It was a couple of seconds into the video for “The Scientist,” when the camera pans in on Martin’s face and for an instant, just an instant, his pupils flare, like exploding stars in some far off galaxy. From that moment on I was, to quote the great Air Supply, lost in love.

Sure, Martin can be too sensitive for words, and Coldplay has released its fair share of sappy songs. As a result, Coldplay is looked down upon as a sort of poor man’s Radiohead, but you know what? Fuck Radiohead. I hate ‘em. And fuck Robert Christgau while we’re at it, for calling Coldplay “the definition of a pleasant bore—easy to tune out, impossible to care for.” He can think what he wants but I care for them, for populist reasons and because despite what anyone says they know how to induce ecstasy or, conversely, how to conjure up a catharsis of delectable melancholy.

Anyway, Coldplay has released six LPs since 2000, won shitloads of awards, and released such great tunes as “Yellow,” “Fix You,” “Speed of Sound,” and “Viva La Vida,” to say nothing of the many excellent tunes on 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, their sophomore—and best, in my opinion—album. And I’m not alone; in a BBC radio 2 poll, listeners declared—hold on to your hats, folks–A Rush of Blood the best album of ALL TIME. Personally I find this ludicrous—where are your Beatles and Stones and Stooges and Killdozer? But it goes to show you both how many fans Coldplay has and how fanatical they are. If Chris Martin decided to hold his own Nuremburg Rallies, there would be no shortage of attendees.

Formed in London in 1996, the band was initially called Pectoralz, and then Starfish. But someone in the band came to their senses, and they settled on Coldplay, and set about releasing three EPs in 1998 and 1999 before rocketing to stardom with the release of the single “Yellow.” The band’s line-up since then has remained stable, and includes Martin on vocals, acoustic guitar, and keyboards; Jonny Buckland on electric guitar; Guy Berryman on bass; and Will Champion on drums, harmony vocals, and percussion.

A Rush of Blood to the Head opens with “Politik,” a pounding march that quiets down to just Martin on piano. Then the pounding recommences and the band delivers up a lovely chorus. And so it goes, back and forth, until Martin plays some beautiful piano and the song reaches out, to the stars as it were, and comes to an end on a truly divine orchestral note. “In My Place” opens like a rocker, with guitar and drums, before the beautiful melody is introduced. This is one moving song, with choruses that will make you think of the infinite, and Buckland in particular plays sublimely. But it’s the choruses that will really hook you, the choruses and Buckland’s guitar, and just as with “Politik,” “In My Place” builds to a moving climax that makes this critic really happy. “God Put a Smile on Your Face” opens with some acoustic guitar and Martin’s vocals, before the band kicks in, Champion pounding the skins like a madman. Then the song takes off, and Buckland plays a cool repetitive riff while Martin demonstrates his vocal wiles on the speedy choruses. Once again the song builds to a climax, with Martin singing “As good as mine” over and over like a mantra before the song ends the way it began, with just Martin and that piano.

“The Scientist” is one of the loveliest songs I know, and I don’t say that because it’s the song that led me to fall in love with Martin in the first place. A slow processional, it opens with a piano interlude, and then Martin comes in, singing about running in circles until the lovely chorus, when he sings, “Nobody said it was easy/Nobody said it would be this hard/Oh take me back to the start.” Then the drums and bass come in, and Martin sings about “science and progress” before going back in that wonder of a chorus. And after that Buckland jumps in and plays a guitar that climbs and climbs while Martin howls at the moon and I cannot think of many moments as lovely as these; they bring me to my knees. Everybody knows the piano intro to the fast-paced “Clocks,” and the way the band jumps in, and Martin’s repeate “Yeeeew ah.” At about the halfway point Martin plays a solo on piano, then the song rises and Martin repeats, “Nothing else compares,” and it’s sublime. As is the way he repeats, “Home, home/Where I wanted to go” in accompaniment with the piano until the song fades out.

“Daylight” opens on a Middle Eastern note, then blooms into a smooth groove that has Martin stretching out his words while the rhythm section keeps things moving. As for the chorus it’s cathartic, a hymn to the dawn, and if this one doesn’t have you thinking of calls from Islamic minarets sounding the call to prayer, well, you’re not listening. Follow-up “Green Eyes” is a sappy paean to you know who, that’s right the woman who is keeping Martin from me. It’s a pretty song but Martin comes on all uxorious, in the disgusting way John used to dote on about his soul mate Yoko. I don’t hate it, mind you; the melody is lovely and the band keeps things simple but nice. Meanwhile, “Warning Sign” is an atmospheric and mid-tempo tune that starts slowly and then kicks into gear, before dishing up an ecstatic chorus about longing and all that romantic nonsense. Champion is an excellent drummer who keeps everything in order, giving Martin free rein to vent his longing. Then there’s piano solo, and Martin returns to repeat “And I crawl back into your open arms” as the song comes to an end. “A Whisper” highlights Buckland playing some tough guitar while Martin sings “Whisper” over and over again, and barrels along until Martin lifts his voice to the heavens, and while good this one is far from my favorite despite its addictively repetitive ending.

I have middling feelings about the title track; it starts with just Martin and an acoustic guitar, and then a dreamy sequence ensues in which Martin croons about arson and buying a gun, before the long and transcendentally beautiful chorus comes along to save the day. The trouble is I don’t like anything about the song but its choruses, which soar and soar and remind me of Grandaddy—remember Grandaddy?—at their best. As for closer “Amsterdam,” it opens with some undersea noise before Martin comes in—slowly, oh so slowly—on piano. Once again it’s just Martin and the piano, and while his voice is rich with yearning and he hits the high notes, “Amsterdam” waits too long to hit its stride. First you have to listen to some harmony vocals by Buckland, and then an organ, and then in comes the band, to lift you skyward to ecstatic heights one last time.

Coldplay is not a critic’s band, or a hipster’s band, but I love them and not just because I’m carrying a torch for Chris Martin. But I do know this; when it comes to bands that know their way around an irresistible chorus and a big soaring climax, Coldplay is hard to beat. It’s in their DNA, regardless of what the musical cognoscenti have to say, and I’m dead certain I’ll still be listening to “Fix You,” “The Scientist,” and “Yellow” long after this year’s flavor—whether it be Perfect Pussy or Sia or some band whose first name starts with the word “Black”—is dead and gone. This is music built to last, and I’d say more but I want to watch the video to “The Scientist” again, and swoon.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Jeff Nolan

    What a ridiculous and unnecessary review.

    • Michael Little

      Could you be more specific? I find your knack for generalities annoying, but also intriguing.

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