A Rush Of Blood To The Head
reviewer’s job is difficult. I don’t see myself as a music journalist; I see myself as a fan who writes, and the reason I write is to turn people on to music that I love, and convince them to save their money on things I think are done better elsewhere. Buying a record (rather than downloading one) is a big commitment for many people, going beyond the actual cashmoney handed over the counter and into a potential emotional investment in music that we, as music fans, see as being massively important. The simple fact is that we like buying records, we like taking them home and opening them up and sticking them in the CD player or on the turntable, and we like them to make us happy, or dance, or cry, or sit in front of the speakers with eyes aghast at the strange and wonderful sounds being revealed to us, or any one (or more) of another infinite reactions that we might have to a record and wish to repeat by playing it again or seeking out something else which might do the same or better. But we don’t like being ripped-off, financially or emotionally. There is a weight of responsibility to the music writer, then, to account for themselves. I don’t think it’s acceptable (in most circumstances) to simply say “I like something” or “I dislike something”; I think you owe it to the people reading to extrapolate on why you feel the way you do, to help them hear a record the way you do so they can get something out of it too. And sometimes you owe it to yourself (and the readers) to explain something, to capture an idea, to draw links between things, to try and contribute holistic lines to the huge Venn/spider diagram of our culture. It’s not about just being a buying guide, about trying to offer a definitive statement, an objective truth (no such thing exists) about a record. It’s about trying to capture the feelings and thoughts that make you love a song or a hook or a turn of phrase or a sound. And it’s also about giving reasons why not when you can. And that’s what I’m doing now. Too often a review is written quickly, too often a record isn’t given time, because the barrage of stuff (asked for and unasked for) is too much, and sometimes one simply wants to listen to music because one loves it and not because one has to deal with it.
Coldplay confound me. Being honest, my initial review of this record, written in thirty seconds some two years ago, was a throwaway put-down, an overly dramatic one-liner on a par with “shit sandwich” only not as funny, pithy or incisive about the music. It was a pre-emptive strike against the inexorable success path Coldplay had set themselves upon, fuelled by distaste for their polite mediocrity (politeness great in person but rarely in music), by frustration that they were more successful than countless other, more deserving bands, and bemusement at the public so eagerly clutching them to their collective bosom when I could see little endearing about the group or their music. Every shop I stepped into, every radio I heard playing in a passing car, seemed to be projecting this record and at every turn it seemed to me to be muzak, easy-listening, emotionally safe, musically conservative, no highs, no lows, just a consistent level of… pleasantness. And how pointless is that?
But some 20 million people have bought this record now, and 20 million people can’t be wrong, can they? So the question I’ve been asking myself isn’t “what’s the problem with Coldplay?” but rather “what’s my problem with Coldplay?” because the band evidently don’t have a problem – blissful anonymity for The Other Three and a seemingly successful marriage to (and child with) a Hollywood star for the singer, allowing him to further push his Fair Trade agenda to the masses, for Chris Martin.
I could easily say that the problem with Coldplay is that they have no desire to be, and no history of being, a dodgy heavy metal band or a dodgy punk band or a dodgy goth band, because I think this is part of why I don’t like them. Most of my favourite guitar bands of the last 20 years started out embarrassingly, noisily, and ineptly. Radiohead started inauspiciously as badly coiffed goth/punks, On A Friday, Talk Talk were bad punk before they were good pop (before the were great whatever-it-was they became), The Stone Roses were a very dodgy goth band in the mid 80s, Embrace were a very dodgy goth band in the mid 90s, and Blur were hapless punks by the name of Seymour before they jumped a few bandwagons and in doing so became very good indeed. Even Orbital were dodgy punks before they discovered rave. Starting in this manner gives a band a valuable lesson in theatre and ridiculousness, an ability to loose the reigns and do something that precariously walks the line between excitement and embarrassment. The likes of Muse perhaps kick too far in the other direction, where rock comes at the expense of control, where every gesture is a hysterical emotional trauma and the drama and impact no longer rings true.
Not every band needs to rock though, but if they don’t then they need to either push the boat out sonically, have character and wit oozing from every pore, or else possess absolutely blinding Jimmy Webb-style greatness in their tunes. And Coldplay don't seem to do any of the above quite well enough. There is little excitement, character or sex in their music and this is not good. A Rush Of Blood To The Head too often sounds like extended extracts of music recorded specifically for use as incidental score on BBC1 after the news; kind of pretty and almost involving, but shorn of any climax (the climax, being, of course, the best bit about music, because music is like sex and sex without orgasm is just plumbing). And while that's fine in some areas (I love Eno and always will), pop music, as it were, really shouldn't be about just filling silence.
Alan McGee wrote them off along similar lines, calling them “indie bedwetters”, but he’s wrong too. Coldplay are too expensive and wannabe-expansive to be indie. They’re not obscurantist cool enough, not sneeringly, disdainfully arrogant enough. They have no truck with hipsters and they’re not the outcasts at the back of class either. There is a sense of bedroom melancholy about them, but they want everyone else to be in the bedroom too – they’re much more ambitious than The Smiths for example, simply because their brand of misery is so generalised, so universal, so faux-profound and encompassing. They don’t smack so much of the bedroom to me as the kitchen, people half-sighing as they dry the dishes and wait for their pasta to boil, rather than frantically, desperately miserable adolescents cursing their own birth. Proper miserable indie is so misanthropic and posed that it wants to be loved by some and hated by others in order to build strawmen for it to hate in turn, and Coldplay are far too inclusive for that.
But these are all problems with the band as much as the album. First and foremost, A Rush Of Blood To The Head is beautifully recorded, by turns sounding expensive and expansive and then intimate and natural. The piano that chimes through “The Scientist” is captured perfectly, the warm depression of each individual key caught rather than a shrill ringing as is so often the case. But the tune itself is a dirge, almost literally, never breaking its pattern or shifting its momentum. Even the hook (“back to the start”) seems second hand, recalling a moment of Achtung Baby (specifically “So Cruel”). Likewise “Politik”, although it starts with just the right blend of subtle muscle and ends on a note of hope, is let down by its lyrics, which offer a string of pseudo-profound clichés (about the state of the world and finding a place within it) that are so simple as to border on patronising inanity (“give me real don’t give me fake” as if this was the best way to express yearning, as if this even mattered). I keep hearing and reading about its supposedly “slamming” guitars, but the impact upon my solar plexus is less than forceful, leaving me to wonder what on earth people are comparing it to. “In My Place”, as well as being another tune bereft of climax or even surge, is also littered with more impersonal lyrical redundancies and an unexciting hook. Yet it was the lead single and paved the way for the album to do very well.
“Clocks” is an awesome piece of music though. It may border (perhaps due to overuse as such) on being public service broadcasting muzak when taken in that context, but it’s also grand yet understated, emotive without being schmaltzy. It has a trance-like momentum, an intangible, almost futuristic aesthetic, an almost perpetual motion which, whilst never achieving real climax, borders on such an intangible, euphoric rush with such regularity that the lack of a true over-the-top break doesn’t actually harm it in any way. And that piano hook is simply and instantly recognisable and immensely replayable. “God Put A Smile Upon My Face” and “Daylight” both border on being as good, as powerful, as “Clocks”, but neither achieves the same level of pre-ecstasy momentum or employs any sort of dramatic dynamic shift in order to really shock the listener into caring.
And that’s it. A Rush Of Blood To The Head is so top-loaded that the second half trails away listlessly, “Green Eyes”, “A Whisper” and the title track little more than one-paced filler, nicely recorded, nicely sung, but never breaking out of torpor. What hooks there are, are either weak or else seem vaguely and disconcertingly familiar, and there are no breaks or twists to speak of. When “Amsterdam” shifts pace slightly after four minutes it produces a rush of mild proportions, but only because the preceding ten songs have been so resolutely mid-tempo, and taken alone it too seems lifeless and too polite by half. All the songs here, indeed, all the songs I’ve heard by Coldplay (which is almost everything bar recent b-sides), pull in the same direction, work within the same style and mood, are literate in the same emotions. There seems to be little tension at play within the creative process, no conflict over which directions things are pulled in, and, as a result, little to no spark adding a frisson of excitement and character. Which means that, for me at least, there is very little to get hold of and really love about this record, and, “Clocks” aside, precious few songs or moments I want to listen to repeatedly.