The Great Communicator

Coldplay's Chris Martin brings his muddled message to the people.

Interviews can get a little solipsistic, which is a new word I learned, by the way.

—Coldplay's Chris Martin, USA Today, June 3, 2005

In May, Entertainment Weekly asked Chris Martin about the threat of a third-album slump. His band Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head, from 2002, was going to be a tough act to follow; it rocketed them to global fame, selling several million copies in the U.S. alone. Here's what Martin said: "Yeah, you can't win on your third album. You're fucked. I knew we should have stopped. Or someone should have shot me. I think that's the best thing that could happen to us, if someone shot me in the head. Death is guaranteed to make your last work seem good, you know?"

A month earlier, he'd told NME: "I think the best thing for everyone would be if I died. It's the only way to save this album. I'd add that necessary amount of tragedy. I wouldn't do that because I have a daughter, but commercially it would be a great idea to blow my head off with a shotgun."

The heartbreaking thing about Martin's statements to the press is that you can almost smell the good intentions behind each dunderheaded word. That's also true of X&Y (Capitol), Coldplay's insanely ballyhooed third album. Its overarching theme? How hard it is to communicate. See "Talk": "Oh, brother, I can't, I can't get through." The title track begins with the phrase "Trying hard to speak"; most of the other songs on the album are difficult confessions of weakness, confusion, or overbearing concern. (The ballad "Fix You," meant to sound loving, comes off instead as condescending.) Musically unadventurous and lyrically uninspired, X&Y is also massively successful; 464,000 copies flew out of stores in the week following its June 6 release, making it the fastest seller of the year. In the June issue of Q, Martin professed surprise at the buzz surrounding the album. Responding to a phrase published in Music Week prior to the record's release ("superstar albums by the likes of Coldplay"), he said, "That statement is bizarre to me. Because they're talking about something that doesn't exist yet." His professed naïveté is a little hard to swallow, considering he has talked about X&Y to every major music magazine on the planet and watched EMI's stock drop when he told the label that Coldplay wouldn't have the new album ready before the end of the last fiscal year. reviewer David Bohm gave X&Y two stars out of five and called the music "terribly harmless"; that simple description may account for much of the band's success. Yet Martin's heart-on-sleeve act is beginning to lose its cachet. In the June 5 issue of The New York Times, Jon Pareles questioned the singer's sincerity, calling him "a passive-aggressive blowhard, immoderately proud as he flaunts humility." That's harsh, and probably unnecessary: Martin, in his unending quest to be a serious activist, has become his own worst enemy. Consider his letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, excerpted in Q: "Dear Mr. Blair: My name is Chris; I am the singer in a band called Coldplay. Please forgive the slightly ramshackle nature of my letter; I don't have any smart stationery." Martin goes on to call Blair's domestic policies "BRILLIANT" (his caps) and offer the prime minister guitar lessons. Either he's pretending to be a child or he is a child. X&Y's lyrics suggest the latter.

The album's first song, "Square One," inverts the jarring, sky-high guitar blasts of Rush of Blood's opener, "Politik," turning them into sonic depth charges. Also like "Politik," the song has Martin delivering its climax in falsetto: "Is there anybody out there who/Is lost and hurt and lonely too?" (The answer Martin seems to be after reveals Coldplay's intended demographic: "Yes, everyone.") Martin's lyrics once told specific stories, like the revenge fantasy spelled out on Rush of Blood's title track ("I'm gonna buy this place and see it burn/Do back the things it did to you in return"), and flirted with irony. To this day, I can't quite figure out whether Martin is being earnest or facetious on "Don't Panic," the opening track from 2000's Parachutes, when he coos: "We live in a beautiful world." X&Y's lyrics, in contrast, feel test-marketed. They're built on the same psychological principle that accounts for the popularity of astrology and fortune cookies: If your words are vague enough to speak to anyone, yet "intimate" enough to seem meant for individual listeners, you appeal to the largest number of people. It's the Barnum Effect, named after the infamous promoter who claimed that a sucker was born every minute. And while Martin may make an ass of himself on a weekly basis in magazines, he's not the sucker if you buy X&Y. You are.

Coldplay play White River Amphitheatre (40601 Auburn Enumclaw Rd., Auburn, 206-628-0888) with Black Mountain at 8 p.m. Tues., Aug. 16. $34.75–$69.25.

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