Coldplay are members of an unfortunate class that includes bands like Train and Maroon 5, often known solely for their frontman, and often seen nakedly chasing after hits, no matter how ill-advised that might be.
Further, each of these three groups reach a point where their work is boiled down to an inescapable essence. For Train, no matter how slight or ambitious the latest song might be, it will be undermined by a lazy lyric, delivered with a level of earnestness that makes the lack of linguistic dexterity even worse. For Maroon 5, no matter who writes the song – be it a high-powered pop producer or the band itself – every track seemingly will arrive in the voice and narrative of Adam Levine’s penis.
You can feel a small amount of sympathy for Coldplay – and frontman Chris Martin – because the group seems to genuinely want more than the dopamine rush of hit status. They do strive for artistic legitimacy, but are also undermined by the desires for money, fame, and celebrity friends.
Martin regularly takes a punch for being, as some have termed, a “baby Bono,” ready to spout off at how the world can and should save itself, but then behaving in ways that could be viewed as self-serving and sanctimonious, not as a happy warrior ready to forsake one’s own rewards to accomplish it. (It should be noted that both Bono, with Amnesty International, and Martin, through other means, have shown a desire to put their money where their mouths are, but perception is a sticky and unyielding thing.)
Martin also wants to be seen as “a real musician in a real band,” not as a pop-opportunist. You can see this with the first three albums, all three grappling with that balance and all three succeeding to greater or lesser degree while all getting slagged with the label of “Product.” The fourth album, Viva La Vida, thus became a gloves-off moment and garnered a grudgingly-given kudos from critics. The public responded positively, too. It would be short-lived.
The electronic-girded Mylo Xyloto; the turgid Ghost Stories, serving as Martin’s breakup album after his divorce from Gwynneth Paltrow; and A Head Full of Dreams, with its notable “feat.s,” continued to serve the band’s bottom line, but starved that aim of being for real in the eyes of their detractors. They seemingly slipped into the miasma of hit-heroes-for-hire, just like the previous bands, in an effort to not be seen as pretentious.
But Coldplay is pretentious, in a good way. There is value in wanting to be bigger, to be better, and to win over those who would rather just write you off as another wanna-be trying to crash Rihanna’s Beverly Hills parties. Indeed, the band has shown themselves at their best when they have actively tried to be. I can’t say they have always succeeded flawlessly, but they do manage to make something worthwhile when they’re really trying.
Their latest, Everyday Life, is very much in that vein. They call it a double album, although it comfortably fits on a single compact disc. Still, there are two tonally different divisions – Sunrise and Sunset – framing the record(s), broken between the two by eight short, blank spacer tracks entitled, “G,” “O,” “D,” “=,” “L,” “O,” “V,” and “E.”
It’s a weird touch, given that your eyes did not deceive you, and that was a Parental Advisory sticker on the cover. What follows after the brief spiritual declaration is the track “Guns,” upon which Martin sings, “Who needs education or a thousand splendid suns, poor is good for business – cut the forests, they’re so dumb, only save your look-alikes and f*** the other ones, it is the opinion of the board that we need more guns.”
I’ve said on numerous occasions that I am not opposed to profanity, provided it serves an actual communication need, provided it says something at all. Most of the time, f*** is used like the latest drum-fill, dropped in to stitch holes and attempt to sound street. In this case, I’ll give it a pass. Martin has paired what is, for him, fairly outrageous curses to a fairly outrageous subject. It fits.
The band’s choices fit in lots of places here: the tender and heart-rending “Daddy,” “Arabesque,” “Trouble in Town,” and “Champion of the World” work, and genuinely say something about the band that cannot be said about Train or Maroon 5. It’s also, I think, why the band regularly becomes critical punching bags. If this was a classroom, Train is like the slacker that has been getting by on charm for too long, and passes a test occasionally, to the surprise of everyone, including themselves. Maroon 5 is like the semi-smart kid that chose to put down the books and fully embrace superficiality, so desperate for attention in its basest forms, he’d let his natural skills wither away.
But I don’t think anyone thought Coldplay was incapable, so the argument was, “If you can do this, and you have proven it in the past, why aren’t you?” In this, they are like the student the teacher sees A+ potential in, and is disappointed whenever they turn in C- effort again and again. I can’t say they are always at A+ here: “Church” is another hoary turn at the “my lover is my church” trope. “Orphans” is reductive. The title cut, closing the record, tries just a bit too hard to thread the album’s thematic needle and comes up unstitched.
Still, on the whole, Everyday Life finds Coldplay once again putting in the work, less interested in trendjacking and more in-tune with focusing on a legacy. If that is pretension, then maybe other bands I could mention ought to try it out sometime.