Parachutes (Parlophone ’00, Capitol ’01) Rating: A-
One of several young bands to be compared to Radiohead, Coldplay also at times recalls the late greats Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley. In fact, singer Chris Martin is a dead ringer for Buckley on “Shiver,” a stellar album track, though he also improbably brings Dave Matthews to mind at times ("Spies," for example). Sure, the guitars occasionally soar like Radiohead, but by and large this is a very mellow album that’s more reliant on gorgeous ringing guitars (as well as acoustic guitars and piano) and the stunning voice of Martin, whose fragile falsetto is right up there with anyone else currently working in the field of pop music today. Yes I said "pop music" because Parachutes rarely rocks, which is fine by me since the band’s music is so consistently well-crafted and beautiful. Granted, the album is slow going at times (the majority of the time, actually), and I wish that there were more instant classics along the lines of “Don’t Panic” and “Yellow.” Still, when Martin sings “we live in a beautiful world” on the short former song it's easy to believe him, while the anthemic "Yellow" is the best song that Radiohead forgot to write while recording The Bends; the section from 1:48 to 2:12 is pure magic. “Everything’s Not Lost,” the nicely building 7+ minute finale (really 5+ minutes plus a skippable "hidden track"), is another impressive album highlight, as is "Trouble," a broken hearted piano ballad that also dented the U.S. charts and helped make Parachutes a surprising multi-platinum success.
A Rush Of Blood To The Head (Capitol/EMI ’02) Rating: A
Parachutes was one of the most acclaimed and criticized albums of 2000. Sure, its consistent beauty was blatantly obvious, but the band sounded a little too much like others (Radiohead, Jeff Buckley) for some people, and the album was overly one-dimensional and somewhat boring over the long haul. Well, Coldplay have come back sounding like a band with something to prove, for A Rush Of Blood To The Head makes good on the promise of Parachutes (still really good, I want to reiterate) by delivering a more mature, well rounded second set. The album starts on a high with “Politik.” Written the week of September 11th, 2001, the song shows a no longer naïve young band writing powerfully about politics. The dramatically building music is even better, while the second song and first single “In My Place” repeats the Parachutes formula effectively, delivering a beautifully ringing guitar melody from Jon Buckland and a gorgeous vocal from Martin. This one has "hit single" written all over it, and the haunting, swirling atmospherics of “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” continues the high quality tunes. Continuing, the superb “The Scientist” is a sad but singable piano ballad that surges periodically, the stunningly pretty piano rocker “Clocks” (single #2) is absolutely perfect and is simply one of the finest songs of the decade, and “Daylight” is another big production number (unlike the debut which had a much sparser sound) that showcases the band at their moody, melodic, surging best. The acoustic-based “Green Eyes” continues with a more modest but quite effective country-tinged romantic ballad that brings Wilco to mind, before Martin again bares his emotions on the wonderfully mournful and melodic “Warning Sign,” which ends a superlative eight-song sequence. “A Whisper” isn’t as impressive but boasts a churning intensity, while the more subtle but also quite intense title track and the pretty piano ballad “Amsterdam” (also highlighted by Martin’s falsetto vocals and a late song surge) impressively end the album with a pair of ambitious tunes that really grew on me over time (I now belatedly consider both album highlights). On the whole, this album delivers everything you could hope for in a second effort. Coldplay still recalls others a tad too closely at times, but the influences are much wider this time out, and though the band are still romantics, they’ve also become less insulated and more interesting as a result. Above all else Coldplay have an instantly inviting sound, helped by an emerging guitar hero in Buckland, an excellent singer in Martin, and a sympathetic rhythm section that brings considerably more energy to the band’s expanded sound than on Parachutes. Yes, the band can still be a bit “boring” at times, but A Rush Of Blood To The Head is an impressive rebuttal to anyone who had dismissed them as likely “one hit wonders” or “bedwetters” (Alan McGhee, an apology is in order), for it's a powerfully moody and surprisingly adventurous album.
X&Y (Capitol/EMI ’05) Rating: B+
Of course, the word "adventurous" is a relative term, and even at their most adventurous Coldplay is still accessible and somewhat safe. Alas, this much-delayed album (famously causing EMI's shares to drop as a result, such was the anticipation for the album) is conservative even by their standards, almost as if they didn't want to disappoint the soccer moms and shareholders who were waiting for it. Songs such as "Square One," "White Shadows," "A Message," and "Speed Of Sound" (another superlative first single, even if it's basically "Clocks Pt. 2") are appropriately moody and melodic, but on the whole the hooks are harder to come by this time, and the seemingly overly scripted album often lacks energy and any sense of spontaneity. Fortunately, Martin still has a lovely voice, even if he goes overboard with the falsettos, and the band still has a rich, inviting sound, plus they add enough instrumental flourishes (pounding drums here, pretty piano there, etc.) to generally maintain my interest, though those looking for innovation or deep lyrics (which at least are faceless enough not to be completely embarrassing) should look elsewhere. I would've liked to have heard less synthesizers and more of Buckland's ringing guitar sound, and the band's debt to U2 seems more obvious than ever, but then I'll hear a sweeping ballad ("What If"), a nice singable chorus ("X&Y"), or a soaring anthem ("Fix You," possibly their finest song yet) in the band's best style and I remember why I like these guys so much in the first place. Still, I can't help but notice that the most memorable riff here (on the terrific "Talk") is lifted from Kraftwerk's "Computer Love," and that this album ends much weaker than it begins. Then again, that could be said about most albums these days, and X&Y has steadily grown on me over time, as the first 2/3 of the album is comparable to their best prior work. In any event, I'm sure that EMI will be happy with the end result.
Viva la Vida (Capitol/EMI ’08) Rating: A-
X&Y had three fantastic singles ("Speed Of Sound," "Fix You," "Talk") and several other good songs but it also got bogged down by too many same-sounding, merely decent songs, especially on side two. Although this album may lack an abundance of hit singles, Viva la Vida, which smartly runs for only 46 minutes long, doesn't suffer from similar problems and is the band's most consistent and best album to date aside from A Rush Of Blood To The Head. Maybe this would've become the most legally downloaded album to date even without that omnipresent iTunes commercial (which may have boosted sales but which also reinforced many people's perception of Coldplay being a "poor man's U2") and if it wasn't so good, but I'd like to think not, though I should know better by now. Anyway, this album definitely does sound like U2 at times, especially due to Buckland's more aggressive, Edge-y guitar, but hey I love U2 so that's fine with me, and I for one welcome this album's success given how crap rap and American Idol-type pop pap have dominated commercial music in recent times. Among the characteristics that distinguish this from previous Coldplay albums is that Martin's voice generally opts for a lower register rather than his trademark falsettos, there are prominent strings and exotic percussive decorations, the latter likely due to the influence of a new producer in the legendary Brian Eno, and the album on the whole seems more positive and life-affirming than past records. More important than Martin's vaguely political lyrics, which as usual I can take or leave, this album's music is less obvious than X&Y, with a wider range of mostly interesting sounds. By and large the songs are really good too, beginning with "Life In Technicolor," an Eno-ish instrumental that builds nicely; it may be a mere table setter, but it is certainly an enjoyable one. "Cemeteries Of London," with its exotic percussion and haunting chants, is tuneful yet a far cry from your typical pop fodder, while "Lost!," which sounds like BIG IMPORTANT MUSIC, is an album highlight and the most arena ready anthem here. "42," like the more expansive "Yes," starts slowly but eventually morphs into a surging rocker, as this collection is less ballad-heavy in general than previous albums. Also like "Yes" but in a different way, "Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love" is really two songs in one, and I'm not sure why the band didn't properly break them out in both cases since the separation is distinct and the song connections tenuous. I far prefer the "Lovers In Japan" part, whose effortless groove recalls U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name," and "Death and His Friends," which ends the album (actually, the "hidden song" reprise of "Life In Technicolor" really ends the album and brings it full circle, though they renamed this version "The Escapist"), likewise swings impressively once it gets going. "Strawberry Swing," with its "it's such a perfect day" refrain, gives credence to my previous proclamation that Coldplay actually seem happier and more content these days, and I still haven't gotten to the albums two best songs and (unsurprisingly) first two singles, "Violet Hill" and "Viva la Vida." "Violet Hill" is decidedly different from the Coldplay norm, being almost bluesy with intense, dissonant guitars, yet it most definitely works, as does the poppy, upbeat "Viva La Vida," which is much different from "Violet Hill" and anything else the band has done to date and which became their first #1 single in both the U.S. and U.K. Not only that, but it became the first rock song to hit the #1 spot on the U.S. pop charts since, um, Nickelback. Fortunately, for the string-heavy yet still anthemic "Viva la Vida" is a truly great track (it’s probably in my Coldplay top 5), one whose background vocals during the last minute really push the song over the top for me. All in all, the band has done very well on Viva La Vida, expanding their still-lush sound and adding enough new wrinkles to overcome their ever-increasing U2-ness, plus it's amazing what a difference a simple thing like including less music (46 minutes as opposed to X&Y’s 62) but making sure it's all of a high quality can make.
Mylo Xyloto (Capitol/EMI ’11) Rating: B+
This is a consistently enjoyable album that has many of the same strengths as the prior album, only it's less impressive in every aspect. Like Viva la Vida, the band adds more electronics and world beat elements to their core U2/Radiohead-indebted sound, but this time some of these colorful songs actually sound too cluttered (the word "overproduced" comes to mind). Let's face it, Coldplay don't succeed or fail due to their originality (or lack therof) or their lyrics, but because of their effortlessly appealing (both moody and melodic) core sound, and their ability to write great anthemic songs and put them over performance-wise. Here, they’ve written a good (not great) batch of songs, the production sometimes gets in the way, the segues seem unnecessary, and the Rihanna collaboration just makes me scratch my head (sorry, she may be sexy and a “star” but I’m not a fan of her music)...Anyway, on the whole I'd say that this album is brighter and more "uplifting" than past efforts, and as per usual big bright "whoa" singalong choruses are fairly commonplace. The album starts quite strongly with the melodic, beat-driven "Hurts Like Heaven" (it has nice guitar shadings including a short but sweet guitar solo and gorgeous, hooky vocals too), which made for a perfect concert opener, the simple but effective, arena-ready "Paradise," and "Charlie Brown," which like most of the best Coldplay songs is moody and melodic and has periodic surges that up the excitement. Still, again I'd vote "really good" rather than "great" for these songs and the other standout tracks as well, including the first single "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall," which has a nice mixture of acoustic and electric instruments and is highlighted by its ringing riffs, and "Don't Let It Break Your Heart," which has all the classic Coldplay elements, namely surging rhythms, ringing riffs, and soaring vocals, only it isn't really memorable enough to warrant being considered a classic track. Elsewhere, you have those aforementioned segues and the Rihanna collaboration (which actually has its moments), and some pared down tracks that either get going to late or never get going to the extent that I’d hoped for; when it comes to Coldplay bigger is usually better. On the whole, Mylo Xyloto is still a consistently tuneful album that I like listening to, but despite its considerable strengths part of me can't help but feel that Coldplay is running in place a bit here
Ghost Stories (Parlophone, Atlantic ’14) Rating: B
After their colorful, spectacularly successful Mylo Xyloto tour, captured on Coldplay Live 2012, came the announcement that Chris Martin and his actress wife Gwyneth Paltrow were separating. Unsurprisingly, this album, released in the wake of that announcement, is an introspective, contemplative, highly personal "breakup album" whose sound is much more stripped down than recent albums (or any Coldplay album since Parachutes), as it often sounds almost like a singer-songwriter album rather than a proper Coldplay album. I'm not saying that the rest of the band doesn't contribute here, they certainly do, but this album's subdued sonics and melancholic overall mood is certainly a far cry from Mylo Xyloto, though obviously this was the album that they (or at least he) needed to make at this particular time. Ghost Stories, likely named due to the ghostly presence of Paltrow on most of these songs (right away he confesses that she’s “Always In My Head”), is an album that you definitely need to live with for a while, as these songs generally aren't as immediate or as memorable as their best prior work (maybe Eno would've spiced things up a bit but he's not around this time). On the plus side, this is an album that's meant to be listened to as a whole, and the 9 songs and 42 minute duration feels about right, plus there are some very good songs here. For example, lead single "Magic," one of several songs here with deft electronic touches to the rhythms, has Martin's trademark falsettos and an attractive melody in addition to flattering lyrics about his ex. "Ink" is musically lighter and brighter, but lyrically here and elsewhere Martin is obviously brokenhearted about the dissolution of his marriage, and he comes across as pretty shattered and even pathetic at times; see the pleading lyrics of "True Love," for example, though I can’t help but really like this song anyway, primarily due to Martin’s gorgeously sighing vocals plus the short but sweet guitar solo. The second single, "Midnight," is a mood piece for sure (as was the aforementioned but less memorable scene setter “Always In My Head”), but it has a haunting quality that makes it one of the standout tracks on the album. Continuing, the striking operatic vocal samples from "Silver Chord" by Jane Weaver is probably the best part of "Another's Arms," another fine song that’s really grown on me, though I find the spare acoustic melody of "Oceans" to be a bit on the boring side. Much more impressive is "A Sky Full Of Stars" (single #3), which is the album's biggest production number and as such it most recalls their more recent work; this danceable track, a collaboration with DJ Avicii, would probably make for a fine concert opener much like "Hurts Like Heaven" did on the last tour. The final track, "O," a pretty if not particularly memorable piano ballad, ends the album on a soothing, hopeful note, which was a smart move given all the sadness that preceded it. On the whole, I appreciate the band's need to do something different and pursue a more personal approach here, and there are several extremely strong songs like “Magic,” “True Love,” “Midnight,” and “A Sky Full Of Stars.” Perhaps some of the songs here could be a bit hookier, but spend some time with it and this is still a fine album for when you feel like wallowing in self-pity.