Coldplay: Stone-cold hit machine

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      When a band gets as big as Coldplay-and no group to emerge this century is bigger-it is tempting to attribute the achievement to some form of artistic compromise. So cynical have we become that we think it nearly impossible for artists to reach the top of their field strictly on their own terms. Judging by the critical consensus on such current megastars as 50 Cent, Norah Jones, and, yes, Coldplay, a person might reasonably conclude that each of them is holding something back, consciously repressing some vital artistic streak for the sake of sales. In short, you might be convinced that these folks are charlatans.

      Coldplay frontman Chris Martin is a lot of things-a magnetic frontman, a one-man hook-writing machine, the least-threatening rock star on the planet-but he hardly seems like a fraud. If his band's hits seem like they were designed to convince us that life's not so bad after all, it isn't because Martin is coldly manipulative. Really, he's just being himself.

      Born in 1977 to middle-class parents in Devon, Martin grew up doing what so many small-town British boys did in the '80s and early '90s: listening to U2 and longing for London. Shortly after arriving at the University College London-where he briefly studied anthropology-the singer formed a band with three friends: guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and drummer Will Champion. This was in 1996, the high point for Britpop, a movement bracketed at one end by working-class boors (Oasis) and at the other by cheeky art-school types (Blur, Pulp). As the popularity of those bands dwindled near decade's end, in stepped Coldplay, four regular guys representing that silent majority of upstanding average English lads we never seem to hear about.

      Where Britpop was largely defined by the hollow defiance of brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher and the arch irony of Blur's Damon Albarn and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Martin's band adopted the broadly pitched sincerity favoured by the likes of Travis and Ocean Colour Scene. Right from the start, Coldplay aimed for a massive audience, penning the kind of songs that sound best when thousands of people sing along. Even in their early days, says Martin, the band members were never comfortable playing in rundown pubs and tiny nightclubs. Strangely enough, he feels most at home in arenas.

      "That's where I've always wanted to sing," claims the Englishman, reached on the line just before a show in Belfast, Ireland. "Concerts are best when there's 10,000 people and you can do all kinds of cool things with the lights and there's more toys to play with. I love the idea of designing the stage and doing all the stuff that you can't do when you're playing a club, where it's just an alcohol- and smoke-filled black hole. When you go into these arenas, they're like a blank canvas that you can fill in with your concert. I've always relished the chance to create something that's better than Cats on Ice."

      That quote is classic Martin, marked by the fusion of bravado and self-deprecation that he seems to exude in every interview. In one breath, the singer talks excitedly about Coldplay's new batch of songs, which he says "are going to blow the roof off the world", then, a few moments later, when asked what he and his band members have contributed to rock history, he admits they've added nothing new.

      In keeping with this conflicted self-regard, Martin last year told Rolling Stone that he reckons himself and his mates "incredibly good plagiarists", a claim supported by the songs on their most recent album, X&Y. When speaking of Coldplay, critics invariably return to the band's indebtedness to U2, pointing to Martin's grandly unsubtle oration, Buckland's chiming guitar tones, and Berryman's melodic bass playing. That's to say nothing of X&Y's more wide-ranging references; take, for example, "Fix You", which contains liturgical organ sounds íƒ   la Radiohead, a swelling crescendo of guitars that recalls a toned-down Mogwai, and a locked-arm sing-along coda reminiscent of Manchester Britpop forerunners James.

      Most startling of all the allusions on the album is to Johnny Cash, for whom Martin wrote the disc-ending "'Til Kingdom Come", a sublimely faithful rendering of the country icon's vulnerable masculinity. More than anything else he's ever penned, that song suggests that Martin will only get better as his frame of reference expands.

      "I think if you plagiarize from enough different places, you can get away with it," he claims of his serial thievery. "I'm very glad to be a plagiarist. When you read about Bob Dylan, that's all he was doing, taking from old American traditions. I think that's the tradition in all oral and spoken arts-you just build on what came before. In music, there's only so many notes to play."

      Martin is only half-right here; Bob Dylan (like all artists) is indebted to what came before him, but if he had not developed his own formal and narrative style-if he had not invested his music with something deeply personal-he would be nothing more than a historical footnote. As it stands, if Martin dropped dead tomorrow, he would be remembered for his two world-conquering hits ("Yellow" and "Clocks"), for his three successively more polished and consistent albums, and as the husband of Gwyneth Paltrow. Not bad, sure, but his musical accomplishments only hint at what his melodic gifts-which rate among the keenest in pop music's last 15 years-might one day yield, if only he allows himself to be challenged.

      On that count, Martin insists he carries his privilege responsibly. When it's suggested that his commitments to touring and family life probably don't leave him much time to work on music, he argues to the contrary.

      "You'd think that, but in my case it's not at all true," he says. "I'm creating all the time because it's the only thing I know I can do. Writing songs is the way I make sense of everything in my life-of why I was born in England in the year 1977 instead of, say, Africa in 1526. In the middle of the night, I'm always awake and on my own and that's when everything falls into perspective. I look at everything I've been given in life and I realize how important it is to do something significant with what I've been given. I think that's a better aim than trying to figure out how many mansions I can collect."

      Martin is lucky; he freely acknowledges as much. Considering the fame he and Paltrow have each achieved on their own, they keep a remarkably low profile, at least judging by their absence from the covers of supermarket tabloids. In truth, Martin comes in for more sniping from record-store clerks than from gossip columnists, and if he seems grateful for his absence from the pages of Us, the swipes taken at his band by Web zines (among other outlets) bother him to no end.

      "I try to ignore it all but it's hard to escape it," he says of the routine panning. "You could be reading a car magazine and the writer will compare some awful car to your terrible band. So it can be unavoidable. The more success we have, the more criticism we get and the more reason there is to try and prove ourselves."

      The complaints against the Englishmen are generally directed at Martin's lyrics and their music's euphoric sheen. Let us approach these (admittedly abridged) arguments in turn. The first, concerning lyrics, strikes this writer as practically irrelevant.

      Given his occasional tendency for mixing metaphors, Martin is arguably no Dylan-level poet, but nor are there many practising songwriters whose verses deserve to be read on the page. We are talking about music, after all, and while it would be nice if he could channel T.S. Eliot, it would not change the fact that for Martin, words are simply an elaborate vehicle for melody.

      As for the Coldplay sound, the group's arrangements and production choices give all its songs an unabashedly uplifting quality, as if the players were broadcasting from above the clouds. This style runs counter to the prevailing trends in critically acclaimed rock music, as represented by the fashionable primitivism of groups like Animal Collective. If you believe musical credibility necessarily requires the presence of distortion and shrieking, then you will not appreciate Coldplay. You will also have an impoverished view of beauty in all its forms.

      Still, if Coldplay is ever to take its place in the canon, it will have to push beyond the strategies that have made the band so popular. To this point, Martin has shown a remarkable capacity for writing tunes that, to borrow a phrase from the American critic Geoffrey O'Brien, "make yearning and fulfillment seem more or less the same thing". Broadening his tonal palette is something that Martin himself sees as necessary, but not easy to accomplish.

      "The thing is, I have a chip in me that doesn't want a song to go downward," he says. "Even if we're fooling around in the studio playing some funk jam, I always want to put a chord sequence at the end to lift it up in some way, to complete it, to make the song a complete circle. That's hard-wired into me when I'm writing."

      Still, the singer admits that after X&Y-an album that virtually replicated the sweeping tone of 2002's sophomore outing A Rush of Blood to the Head-the band needs to explore new terrain.

      "We're definitely at a point now where we need to do something different," he says. "There's a balance to be reached between playing to your strengths and simply repeating yourself. Next time, I think we have to take away those crutches."

      You don't have to read too closely between the lines to divine Martin's determination to experiment in the future. Being the pragmatic sort, the singer stops well short of promising to throw away his guitar, hinting that if the band's next album breaks the mould, it will do so very cautiously.

      "Trying to do something fresh is the only thing that keeps you going," he says. "But at the same time, I don't think that doing something weird is in itself valid. The reason why [Radiohead's] Kid A is so brilliant is because there's some amazing melodies and some amazing songs on it, and they were presented in an innovative way. Instead of playing the songs straight-ahead, they took those great songs and worked them out in interesting ways. That's the way we have to go."

      For starters, that means the group will likely dismiss producers Ken Nelson and Danton Supple, the two men responsible for engineering Coldplay's output to date. Among Martin's dream candidates for the position are Brian Eno and Timbaland; the former contributed a synthesizer part to X&Y's "Low", while the latter has long expressed his desire to work with the quartet. Given their status (and their budget), the band members are in the enviable position of recording their songs with just about any producer of their choosing. No matter whom the bandmates appoint, they will only advance by relinquishing a certain amount of control to their guide-as in the case of U2, whose collaborations with Eno and Daniel Lanois yielded the best albums of their career, starting with 1984's The Unforgettable Fire. Asked whether he foresees loosening his grip on the steering wheel, Martin says that all depends who's along for the ride.

      "I don't think we'd ever hand the keys completely over," he says, "But we'd certainly let someone drive for a little while-as long as we're still in the car."

      The Unforgettable Fire was U2's fourth studio album. Coldplay's next effort will also be its fourth. If the young Englishmen truly aspire to equal their predecessors, this is when things should start to get interesting. No one's more thrilled by that prospect than Martin himself.

      "I'm more excited about music than ever before," he says. "The more music I listen to and the more music I read about, the more I want to play and sing. I've resolved to try and write the best song ever, but I still don't think we've done it. I'm not necessarily saying we can do it. All I'm saying is we'll keep trying."

      Coldplay plays GM Place next Thursday and Friday (January 26 and 27).