Arts and Culture

Coldplay, Genre, and the Evolution of the Musician

by Aidan Stoddart

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Coldplay have been prevalent on the music scene since the turn of the millennium. They’ve been champions of the alternative rock scene, of the Fair-Trade Movement, and of optimism and good feelings, but they’ve also been champions of musical experimentation.

Theirs is a story of stylistic development, and the diversity of their catalog is a source of ardent contention among Coldplay fans. Many listeners felt betrayed or disillusioned by Coldplay’s newer work, and they found themselves asking many questions of the band. Have Coldplay lost their mojo? Is their passion for music extinguished by the pleasures and pressures of a pop-culture position, and do they create boring music as a result? Do the new Coldplay make music that they don’t care about, that is insincere?

Ultimately, the quality of music itself is subjective and thus indefensible, but genuineness of music is another matter. I would argue for an intense passion and sincerity that has forever permeated Coldplay’s sounds, from their quiet beginnings to their refined recent tones, and for an examination of the nature of musical evolution, which will help to shed light on the development of Coldplay and of artists in general. We can then love the sounds that speak to us, and nevertheless respect the genuine intentions of artists who love the sounds that they create.

A Sonic History of Coldplay

Coldplay’s debut, Parachutes, released in 2000, is a soft-spoken and youthful record, defined by acoustic guitar, frontman Chris Martin’s quivering crooning, brilliant and often reserved guitar riffs, and such songs as the alternative rock classics Yellow or Trouble.

Their sophomore effort, A Rush of Blood to the Head, is considerably louder than its predecessor Parachutes, and the critically acclaimed second album is characterized by piano sound, aggressive guitar, and a subtle air of confidence that comes with the sudden success of a band. Considered by many Coldplay fans to be the greatest Coldplay album ever released, A Rush of Blood to the Head is the epitome of genuinely performed, perfectly raw, delightfully introspective and insightful alternative rock, and includes such well known songs as Clocks, In My Place, and The Scientist.

Coldplay’s third album, X&Y, saw their first experimentation with electronic music; it is also a more aggressive rock oriented album, but very different than A Rush of Blood to the Head due to its even greater sonic confidence and due to the conspicuous presence of Krautrock-y synthesizers. In fact, one single from the record, Talk, borrows a hook from none other than Kraftwerk, a pioneering band of the Krautrock movement. The album is the sci-fi vocalization of an existential crisis turning into an acceptance of life, and despite moments of lyrical uncertainty, it maintains an ultimate spirit of optimism that has become characteristic of Coldplay. The band’s trademark uplifting anthem, Fix You, is from X&Y.

The sounds that, for me, evoke images of monochromatic, nostalgic rocket ships (their retrofuturistic music video for X&Y single Talk features such a vessel, as well as a classic gigantic robot) were abandoned as quickly as they were adopted, and Coldplay’s music burst into technicolor with their sundry album, Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends, a vibrant, artsy record with all sorts of sounds ranging from baroque pop to art rock to shoegazing to blues to hard rock to psychedelic rock to folk and to ambient. The band eagerly ate up producer Brian Eno’s stipulation that each track should sound different, and it’s hard to describe this record as any one thing; the most cohesive thing about it is the fact that it strives to be diverse; each song is ardently individualistic, maintaining a five-minute or less sonic world all its own.

The newfound technicolor became a digital rainbow with Coldplay’s fifth release, Mylo Xyloto. Their first attempt at a concept album, Mylo Xyloto tells the story of the intrepid Mylo Xyloto and his young friends as they battle the sinister executive of a dystopian future void of color and light. It is a lush, sugary album, overflowing with hope and with exuberant guitars, raucous chorused vocals, and enough optimistic synthesizers for an old Owl City record. It also has a refined pop quality that represents a more recent trend in Coldplay’s music, compared to their earlier, raw works. This album is the origin of some of Coldplay’s most popular work, songs like Paradise or Every Teardrop is a Waterfall, pieces whose textures bloom endlessly and energetically.

The refined quality of Mylo Xyloto continued onto Coldplay’s next record, but without the explosive climaxes or deep, lush walls of sound. Coldplay’s sixth album, Ghost Stories, is more reminiscent of Coldplay’s soft-rock debut than any other release in their catalog, despite being, fundamentally, a synth-pop record. But its electronic stylings take on a very different character than the synthesizers of X&Y or Mylo Xyloto. There are fewer layers per track, and on this quiet album there is a lot of space for Chris Martin’s raw, plaintive voice to linger over ethereal guitars and pads. The album makes the listener feel like she is floating, drowsy, in a night sky. Indeed the loudest moment on the record comes towards the end with A Sky Full of Stars, a rock-meets-EDM piece with a dose of sanguinity to alleviate some of the heartache that permeates the other songs. It seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the time of its release it was unsure when or how the tunnel would end; after A Sky Full of Stars, Ghost Stories returns to minimalism and quietness with the gorgeous piano ballad finale, O.

About a year after its release, Coldplay fans finally reached the end of the delightfully drowsy Ghost Stories tunnel with Coldplay’s seventh and most recent album, A Head Full of Dreams. The two latest Coldplay records are night and day, and were meant to be; the band conceived the title of A Head Full of Dreams before recording Ghost Stories, and decided to record a softer, more intimate opus before proceeding to something more upbeat and ebullient. And to call A Head Full of Dreams energetic and positive is a bit of an understatement; it really is a return to the jubilance and triumph of Mylo Xyloto. It’s diverse, flitting from dance rock to symphonic rock to classic Coldplay piano balladeering to straight pop and beyond, but each track, beyond its own musical flavor, is defined by a profound hope and joy about life. A Head Full of Dreams is also the climax of Coldplay’s recent trend towards more refined, pop-informed music; it is truly a pop music record, more than anything else in the band’s catalog.

The Nature of Musical Development

Coldplay have thus shown themselves to be a band who never likes to stay in one sonic spot for too long, but the direction of their musical evolution and the polished quality of their newer work has, again, raised questions among critics and more nostalgic, conservative fans.

“Back in my day, we used to say that Coldplay died after A Rush of Blood to the Head,” chuckled Adam Brock, a new English teacher at Monticello High School. I sat down with him to have a talk about genre and how artists develop; he himself is a veteran of the indie rock scene, and his band, Borrowed Beams of Light, has experienced regional success in Charlottesville and released several albums.

One major factor to consider in analyzing the evolution of a band like Coldplay is financial success, a powerful force that can have a tremendous impact on one’s perception of the world, and, as Mr. Brock points out, an utter vanquisher of raw desperation.

“What you see with a lot of artists is that all their early stuff feels more honest, and has a sense of longing and confusion of their place in the world. And then, when you become a financial success, all the problems that informed your writing, like ‘I have no money,’ ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,’ ‘I’m sad, and I’m broke, and I’m in love,’ and unrequited love . . . all those things, with success, fall apart, fall away,” said Brock.

“And all of a sudden you find yourself successful and rich and all that, so what becomes the fodder for your writing? If you don’t have any of that sad, poignant stuff to write about anymore… some people would argue that artists sort of lose their edge, and I don’t necessarily buy into that but I know it’s worth looking at.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the diversity of the music scene and the wealth of influences that exist for people like Chris Martin, who have incredibly diverse and fluid musical tastes. “I have so many [musical influences],” said Chris Martin in an interview on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show. “It sort of comes from all over the place, especially with the Internet and Youtube being the way they are… one minute I’ll listen to an old Rolling Stones song and then I’ll listen to Turn Down for What or something… it could be anything… I’ve got an open mind with music, is the truth.”

So are artists mere conduits for their financial situations, their social lives and standings, and their personal and musical influences to shine through? Does the theory of intertextuality refer to musical creation? Mr. Brock thinks so.

“I’ve always just thought that you have to kind of do… what’s exciting to you, and you also can’t help but… take in this other stimuli; everything you listen to is going to inform what you write, you can’t help that,” said Brock.

“There’s so much at play here, and it’s a conversation about the role of art in general,” he continued, “it’s all about what compels you to make art, what compels any sort of person to make art, and I think that different forces are at play when you’re eighteen than when you’re twenty five, than when you’re forty, than when you’re forty five… I think that if you’re well established and sitting in your career and you’re on your sixth record with a huge fan base, you might lack some of the urgency of the early albums, because on those early albums, they wanted to get big! They had a lot on their minds, and they were young, like ‘we’re hitting the road, we’re touring, we’re pushing it, we’re doing all this,’ and then now they don’t have to do any of that. So the question becomes, what is driving this creation right now?”

It is folly to expect an artist to retain the sounds of their youth. As we grow our perspective changes; various quagmires and queries swell and fade as we grow. As some fade away entirely, new problems and outlooks arise to replace them. These inform our newest artistic products.

Brock continued, “You lose stuff when you get older, you know what I mean? I’m thirty-four now, and sometimes I get sad that I’ll never experience things for the first time again, but what am I gonna do, kill myself? You know, you get on with it. And you just keep moving, and I think that’s what bands and artists have to do.”

Any artist’s genre has as much developmental stasis as life itself; in other words, none. Musical evolution exists necessarily, the inevitable product of financial situations, social statuses, musical influences, seasons of life, and more. It is only natural to expect a band like Coldplay to develop sonically and embrace styles and sounds that they may not have embraced in the past. Quality remains up to the mass of music listeners, but it is not for us to decide if the fire of Coldplay is dead; that depends on their own devotion to the sonic space they are in.

We are left with the question of genuineness and intention, and the best person to ask about the sincerity and passion of Coldplay’s music making is their frontman himself.

“To be totally honest with you, I’m so happy to be alive every day… I really am,” said Chris Martin in his Seacrest interview, going on to say that the most recent Coldplay record, A Head Full of Dreams, is about “anything being possible, and life, and humans, and being amazing, and you can find joy in everything.”

These days are truly halycon for the band, and Chris Martin feels that Coldplay has been waiting for this sonic season for a long time.

“It feels…like the closing chapter of a story, like the party scene, you know? Or the end of a movie. It feels like we’ve been trying to get to this for ages, which is how I feel, you know, we made this record that’s how I always wanted us to sound… we’re gonna stay in this world for a while.”

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