Nothing Little About It

Chris Martin's quartet throw us another curve—even if you never noticed their first one

With the release of X&Y, their third album, Coldplay once again sidestep expectations about how tuneful bands prosper. Chris Martin's quartet began their pattern five years ago, when with minimum fuss and no fanfare they made their Parachutes debut, which yielded the large hit "Yellow." Among guitar-minded bands and singer-songwriters, the word Coldplay became code for melodic approachability unconnected to high-studio slick.

Coldplay continued as confounders with their 2002 follow-up, the floridly titled A Rush of Blood to the Head. By this time, many musicians and listeners dwelled full-time in the drafty old mansion Radiohead had renovated. So naturally Coldplay's deliberate collection drew comparisons to the work of the terrific mass art project Thom Yorke leads. This was true even though Coldplay's music then more accurately recalled the late experiments of Talk Talk, the poorly chronicled tuneful English band who during the late '80s stored their synthesizers and began to plumb the depths of acoustic real-time. In the U.S., Coldplay moved 3 million copies of Rush, whose songs bettered Radiohead's stated goal of rewriting Scott Walker. That old rocker Justin Timberlake sang Coldplay's praises at the VMA's; the equally old rocker Brandy wrote a song about chilling at home to their music. Hip-hop producers couldn't resist bits of the stylish moodiness.

So while it's unsurprising that X&Y, with its newly mathematical title, is another Coldplay curve, the size of this one is mildly shocking. Here Coldplay return not to the modestly conveyed richness of a debut winner such as "Trouble," nor do they concentrate on further buffing up their art chops. They haven't tried to restage old field recordings. They do the damndest thing: Like U2 on their Joshua-Achtung-Leave masterpieces, Coldplay base X&Y not on how a new gallery show can dazzle and provoke, or on calculations of how much guitar occupies the mix, or on worries about whether this 2005 release evokes historic recordings. Although Martin remains absorbed by tragedies of the heart and the world, Coldplay on X&Ypursue the biggest pop-record-deluxe experience. This is not, notably, business as usual—not during these days of distance and retro.

With few discursive exceptions, the song lyrics on X&Y are written in the language of e-mail—clipped, curbed, cool, ruthlessly to-the-point. In contrast, the melodies are sculpted into a golden modern mean of plummy pop-rock sing-alongs from the Beatles to Pink Floyd and beyond, sometimes leaning, in less obvious ways, into soul music international. "What If," a ballad Beyoncé might seize from behind a piano, perfectly mates this mix of textural simplicity and musical largesse—and Martin sings it well, with his more stinting ratio of Bono's Sinatra-Presley-Green soulfulness. Organ lines swelling around his tenor, Martin goes at "Fix You" similarly; it's about "when you love someone and it goes to waste" and is done in slowly cascading shades of masterfully written gray. Formally, it's the record's "Layla," movingly negotiating succeeding musical movements that address the underlying emotional hell that can occur when a lover, or a nation's foreign policy, causes untold grief.

Yet Coldplay's production isn't like classic rock, which provides analog-hued aural representations of rock instruments playing together in space; here, Coldplay have recorded and mixed themselves into a more abstract orchestral blend, a kind of only fitfully differentiated sonic blur given large, occasionally momentous shapes by how Martin, whose tenor rules the mix, attacks his melodies. The tour de force on every front is "Talk," whose verses feature a sublime duet of vocal and electric guitar. Still, the hit "Speed of Sound" and "White Shadows" (which borrows a melodic drift from Prince's "When Doves Cry"), the groovy "The Message," and the sneakily political title song are unusually accomplished, fresh, and emotional. Bits of melodies in different songs anticipate, restate, resolve, and summarize themselves, as when at the end of "Talk" a series of keyboard notes sets up the later éclat of "Speed of Sound." Coldplay seem to believe in forward motion within the crafty little art of recording. Except they don't appear to think that there's anything little about it. And they are right.

 
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