Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kat's Korner: Chris Martin's cold play

Kat: I really fear for Gwenth Paltrow. I don't know her, I'm not a fan. Take out The Royal Tennenbaums and you're left with a slew of movies I'd never see. But there's one role she's likely to be cast in that I wouldn't wish on anyone: modern day Yoko.

Listening to Coldplay's hugely disappointing Viva La Vida, it was obvious that someone was going to have to take the fall and that the day of reckoning loomed. The summer release was tightly embraced and heavily praised by music critics and dee jays desperate for actual music -- that would require playing an instrument. Because the band can actually play instruments, Viva La Vida was said to be the thing we all have a stake in.

A stake in? Like the current economic meltdown, it appears a lot of musical experts were in willful denial. The disappointing Viva La Vida follows up the disappointing X & Y. The only improvement is that the latest album seems to grasp that dynamics are really what put Coldplay over. It wasn't the lyrics. It was the landscape of sound, the peaks and valleys, the hush and roar of various songs. X & Y would have been good album for a band like Bon Jovi that long ago lost its currency. But as the follow up to A Rush of Blood to the Head, X & Y served notice that Coldplay had been hugely overpraised and that the band didn't even grasp what had made it famous.

Viva La Vida can be seen as band members thinking, "If Chris Martin wants to embarrass himself, he's on his own." Martin is singer. Sometimes he plays an instrument and, too often, he's responsible for writing the songs. The last strong song Coldplay recorded was the title track to A Rush of Blood to the Head. "I'm going to buy a gun and start a war . . . if you can tell me something worth fighting for . . ." Chris Martin is one of those artists who, after being primped by various stylists for the photo shoot, really tries hard to show some sort of enlightened pose in the accompanying text. But as various interviews have demonstrated (I'm especially thinking of an embarrassment in Mother Jones that ran several years ago), he can name check but does nothing to indicate depth.

That's the reality of his lyric writing as well. The song I quoted was on an album released in August of 2002 -- before the start of the illegal war. Because many in the US didn't discover Coldplay until after the start of the Iraq War, a few wrongly thought Coldplay was making some form of contemporary comment. All this time later, Martin still hasn't. But look for him to name check sweat shop labor and assorted other issues in the never-ending attempts to prove himself deep.

While no advocate of sweat shop labor, I think you can grasp on one listen to the latest product that Coldplay might benefit musically from a little sweat. On the plus, the band does sound like it's trying and that it's grasped the musical landscape they created on "A Rush of Blood to the Head" was as responsible for that song's lasting impact as were Martin's words. So it's a real shame that the producers (including the increasingly snooze-fest Brian Eno) have worked so hard to destroy any excitement. Viva La Vida not only sports no sweat, it's sterile and heartless. I believe Martin's vocals about as much as I believed Petula Clark really wanted to go to downtown. Like Clark, Martin chirps away in a confectionery manner.

Usually when I think of how sorry the bulk of today's 'popular' music is, I think of the Disney Kids and the damage they've done. But it's equally true that a group like Coldplay creates their own musical landfill. They may, in fact, be more damaging because they're held up as examples and the real question there is: An example of what?

The Rolling Stones, a British band that came along years earlier, could rock out. Even when addressing the world around them in a song like "Street Fighting Man," the Stones could rock out. Coldplay always seems on the verge of about to rock but stalling so Martin's lyric can make some deep point but, like the rocking out, no deep point ever comes. As the dismal recordings pile up, it's hard not to wish that Martin tried less for lofty and was more willing to come up with his own 'stupid girl' songs ("Under My Thumb," et al) because at least that might have some life in it. Somewhere around the half-way mark in the hideous "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love," I realized Coldplay was all about indications. They lack the ability to actually feel or convey feeling so they indicate. It's like listening to the rock equivalent of America's Next Top Model as the boys try so desperately to be winners but have no grasp of what the prize actually is.

If the whole point of Coldplay was to make Chris Martin a cover boy, consider the band a success. If the point was ever to make music that got you rocking on your feet or on the mattress, they're a failure. Thus far in the 21st century, it appears the marketing of the product is as close to art as music's going to get. The thing about hype is that it always comes back to bite you in the ass and, if Chris Martin doubts that, he should talk to the Knack. At some point in the near future, Coldplay's going to have to face the real critical judgment. When that day comes and a fall guy's needed, the easy target will probably be the actress Gwyneth Paltrow. However, assuming Gwyneth corrupted Chris requires that you first buy into the belief that he had originally had something worth offering. For the second album in a row, Viva La Vida argues that was never the case.


the common ills