The New Yorker AUGUST 4, 2008 - by Sasha Frere-Jones


Coldplay's expanding gas.

In a 2005 piece in the New York Times, Jon Pareles called the British rock group Coldplay "the most insufferable band of the decade," and he placed the blame on the band's front man and singer, Chris Martin, whom he called a "passive-aggressive blowhard." Earlier this year, in a study sponsored by the hotel chain Travelodge of the bedtime habits of two thousand, two hundred and forty-eight people in the U.K., Coldplay topped a poll of music choices that would help people fall asleep. Coldplay apparently relieves what Travelodge called the "pressures of modern living." Martin may use the same metric to judge his band's music. On, you can find a handwritten note, dated "Thursday 12 June London," that addresses the recent release of the band's fourth studio album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. "I feel very relieved that the album is finally released out into the big wide world today," it says. "I hope there's songs on there that will make a shit day slightly less shit, or a good day even better." The album sold more than seven hundred thousand copies in the first week of its release in the United States. (Since the group's début album, Parachutes, was released, in 2000, news items about the troubled entertainment conglomerate EMI routinely correlate the health of the corporation with the health of Coldplay.)

Is Coldplay warm milk or just quietly dependable? Don't ask Martin, who has transformed the English art of diffidence into a masochistic religion: "We owe them a career, really," he has said of Radiohead. He has also said, "Like millions of people in the world, I can't listen to Coldplay." He's half right about Radiohead - Coldplay exhibits a taste for melancholy and smeared, stretched-out sounds that leads straight back to Thom Yorke and his friends. The main antecedent is U2, who invented the form that Coldplay works within: rock that respects the sea change of punk but still wants to be as chest-thumping and anthemic as the music of the '70s stadium gods. Translated, this means short pop songs that somehow summon utterly titanic emotions and require you to skip around in triumphant circles and pump your fist, even if it is not entirely clear what you are singing about.

The link to U2 has been made explicit on Viva La Vida, which was co-produced by Brian Eno, the man who moved U2 from a feisty, soccer-chant style into the expansive and hypnotic sound that has defined the rest of their career. The problem is that Coldplay doesn't seem to have unplumbed depths, or a voice as distinctive as either Bono's or The Edge's, whose guitar is U2's second vocalist. The guys in Coldplay are a sweet bunch, and their best songs are modest affairs. Yellow was the track that made them famous eight years ago. There's some guitar work that echoes The Edge's - chiming, small chords played high on the neck and repeated, over and over, pushing the song away from the divisions of song form and closer to the ecstasy of the drone (when it works) - but the core of the song is Martin serenading someone with the oldest trick in the book: "Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and all the things that you do." It's a big fat "Aw!," and it gets me every time.

Yellow is one of Martin's few straightforward lyrics. For the band's second album, Martin started singing in free-floating slogans. "Am I part of the cure? Or am I part of the disease?" is a line from Clocks, perhaps the group's loveliest song. The music evokes the song's name, revolving around three circling and falling piano arpeggios. The payoff comes when Martin stretches out the words "you are" in a falsetto sung over the piano figure. You are what? Go figure, and I haven't the slightest idea what is going on with the "tides" and the "clocks" in the lyrics. Doesn't matter. Clocks is a big-budget "Ooh!" with lots of pretty lights - it works. At the end of the song, Martin repeatedly sings, "Home, home, where I wanted to go." There's the only part you need take note of - an essentially conservative sentiment, and probably a comfort zone for a guy who grew up thinking he wasn't particularly cool and lost his virginity at the age of twenty-two.

I've always wanted to like Coldplay for just that attribute. They're a band of nice young lads being rewarded for niceness. But on the band's third album, X&Y, a need to Signify Something began to overwhelm the charm. The little bouquet of roses on the doorstep became an oversized vessel filled with cloying, synthetic gas.

The title track of Viva La Vida - also known as the "iPod song", because it is used in an Apple ad - is easily the best thing about the album. Don't go to the lyrics for any cues; it is entirely obscure why such a jaunty, upbeat song would be referencing "Roman cavalry choirs" or revolutionaries or St. Peter. Martin is the king? Was the king? Whatever. Coldplay knows how to build a song that draws you in with easy, karaoke-ready moves. I spent a weekend hearing an eight-year-old and an eleven-year-old sing the song (fighting about the lyrics, and sometimes rewriting them), and I never tired of the melody. After that, though, you are on your own. There are Eno touches that catch the ear: the chattering strings and bell-like keyboards that close out Death And All His Friends, or the timbre of the instrumental Life In Technicolor, which sounds like it's emanating from the end of a long metal tube. Technicolor is one of the album's few concise, concentrated pieces of writing; the rest sounds both incomplete and puffed up, like scraps of previous records scrambled and rearranged. This upending of their style isn't even radical enough to be bad. Viva La Vida is an album that keeps going out of focus, a series of disconnected pieces that is impossible to hold on to. And why are they wearing all those vaguely military jackets? What's with Liberty leading the people on the cover? They must know that beyond the cozy confines of London there are a couple of major conflicts going on. It does not feel like the moment, especially for such a vague band, to be playing with any symbols of war.

All of this is a paid vacation in Ibiza compared to the Madison Square Garden show, in June. The concert, as you may have heard, was a freebie. As the Rolling Stones have taught us, nobody loves money more than a rich man, and I was impressed that this almost unnaturally successful band gave away a night in such a large venue. Good for Chris Martin, I thought. But guess who reminded us, three separate times, that the concert was free? There Martin was, onstage in his Little Bummer Boy outfit, skipping around and waving his fists. Except the crowd wasn't going wild, and the music wasn't calling for a celebration. Though the audience was obviously delighted to see Coldplay appear, the energy in the room remained fairly controlled throughout the set, even dipping to indifference at points. Which made Martin's moves seem that much more canned. It felt as if he'd done the entire show in a mirror, down to the self-deprecating wisecracks. In one of his increasingly suspect apologies, Martin told his American fans, "We come over here, we steal your women." That's right. If anyone in the audience had forgotten, Chris Martin is married to an actress named Gwyneth Paltrow. She's American. Maybe you've heard of her. No? Well, did you know that Viva La Vida went to No. 1? No? It's O.K. - Martin told us, by way of thanking us.

No, dude, thank you.