Without wanting for a moment to give the impression that it's anything other than a wonderful way to earn a living, there are times in a rock critic's life when the soul sighs, and one faces the blank screen with heavy heart and empty head. Last week was one such time.
A new Coldplay album.
When, all too frequently, people say how great it must be to earn one's corn writing about music, it's hard to disabuse them of that opinion. Of course it's great! But I tend to offer one small caveat: it's not just writing about music that you enjoy – often, duty makes demands beyond one's personal tastes. And while experience, or low cunning, might spare one unnecessary exposure to the reviewer's less vital duties – hip-hop album tracks entitled "Intro", "Interlude" or "Telephone Skit", triple-albums by Prince, or the solo projects of sundry Rolling Stones – sometimes an act is so huge, so current, that it's impossible to ignore their enervating new release.
A new Coldplay album.
"Well, at least I'm not dodging sniper bullets in Helmand," you tell yourself, and set about the task in hand, knowing it's going to be no more rewarding an experience than the last time you deliberately exposed yourself to their mawkish stadium-rock anthems. Though actually, who knows? After all, this one's produced by Brian Eno, and he even managed to make U2 bearable for an album or two.
But Eno's presence begs its own question, of course. I recall an occasion back in the Eighties, when the young Eddie Murphy, his career then in the ascendant, was drafted in to salvage an appalling Dudley Moore comedy called Best Defense, through the insertion of about 10 minutes of extraneous footage of him pootling about in an army tank. The film was still terrible, and when asked why on earth he had accepted the part, Murphy shrugged and said: "There was a knock at my door, and when I opened it four men came in bearing an enormous cheque."
One can only wonder how many musclebound oafs were required to carry the cheque that persuaded Eno to produce Coldplay's new album. I mean, given his rarefied cultural tastes, surely it can't have been the project highest on Eno's wish-list? And what with all the U2 royalties, he couldn't conceivably need the money.
In the event, the album is almost exactly as I expected, if a tad shorter on Big Anthems than the previous three. The rhythms are a bit busier, and a bit more ethnic, and Chris Martin's little falsetto catch – one of modern music's most irritating tropes – has been rationed out more parsimoniously. (Thanks, Eno!) Pop's favourite Brianiac has ensured the sonic prerequisites are all in good order. And in a few cases, the songs do seem to be about things, rather than just anaemic expressions of emotional indulgence and limp consolation, like X & Y. Things like death, and war, and power. It's... not much, really, but not so little as to be completely worthless. It's the new Gold Standard of Average Music. And given the competition currently battling for that dubious honour, this is no mean feat. Almost an achievement, in fact.
But don't just take my word for it. Tomorrow you can buy the album and hear for yourself – as will untold millions around the globe. Viva La Vida has already broken the record for iTune's biggest album presale, and will doubtless repeat the success of X & Y, which reached No 1 in all 15 territories surveyed in Wikipedia's comparative chart, and shifted upwards of 10 million units. Not Thriller, perhaps, but then... oh go on, you finish the joke.
The strange thing is, I can't seem to find anyone who bought X & Y, or who intends to buy Viva La Vida. For that matter, I have never encountered one person who has a kind word to say about Coldplay. None of my personal or professional acquaintances, nobody in the street or the local café, not a single soul will admit to liking Coldplay or purchasing their music. Indeed, most seem to agree that they epitomise everything that's wrong with modern rock music. So who's buying all their albums? Who are those masses politely arrayed in their thousands at stadiums when Coldplay play? Is it some secret society, an Opus Dei of dreary anthemic music? And where do they congregate, other than at stadiums and arenas? Do they have parties? And if so, how many slash their wrists at these parties? What's the attrition rate?
Yes, yes, I know, I shouldn't be so hard on them – after all, being Coldplay fans, they have it hard enough already. But it does seem to be the case that Coldplay have become one of those definitive cultural dividers, the twain of which shall never meet. They're sort of the anti-Sex Pistols, an act that repulses not through outrage, bad manners and poor grooming, but through their inoffensive niceness and emollient personableness. In 1977, EMI couldn't divest themselves of the troublesome Pistols quick enough, you might recall; but in February 2005, that same corporation's whopping share-price fall of 46.25p (to £2.35) was largely attributed to the announcement that Coldplay's X & Y would not be released during that fiscal year, as originally expected.
This corporate impact is especially ironic given Coldplay singer Chris Martin's highly publicised advocacy of anti-corporate, pro-Fair Trade principles, just one of several ways in which the band offers a pale reflection of their most obvious influence, Radiohead.
Their music sounds like Radiohead with all the spiky, difficult, interesting bits boiled out of it, resulting in something with the sonic consistency of wilted spinach; it retains the crowd-pleasing hooks and singalong choruses while dispensing with the more challenging, dissonant aspects and sudden, 90-degree shifts in direction. Chris Martin's decision to sing in a register that, at times, strains his vocal almost to a yodel brazenly apes Thom Yorke's more skilful and restrained use of a similar vocal gambit. But where Yorke's subtler employment brings soul into prog-rock, Martin's gauche overuse has become a cliché, which itself has been aped by the likes of James Blunt, perhaps the band's chief rival in musical mawkishness.
Another obvious comparison would be with Pink Floyd: they evoke much the same oceanic sense of unease and uplift, and employ the same type of widescreen arrangements, though as with their Radiohead influence, there's little hint that Coldplay share the Floyd's questing artistic temperament. Nor could they emulate the distinctive lyrical approaches of Yorke or Roger Waters, both of whose work is simply too acerbic and bitter, and frequently too twisted and ambivalent, for such innate populists to handle. So what Coldplay invariably fall back on is the disingenuous empathy of lines like, "Is there anybody out there who is lost and hurt and lonely, too?" and "Are you lost or incomplete... can't find your missing piece?", lines feeding off the soul-carrion of the insecure and lonely while offering no solutions, merely crumbs of solace expanded to wedding-cake size by the musical monumentalism within which they're set, so their fans can have their cake and eat themselves up at the same time.
Songs like "Trouble", from their debut album Parachutes, and "In My Place", from A Rush of Blood to the Head, are anthems of amorphous yearning designed to be as widely applicable as possible; all-purpose wallows whose self-pitying, apologetic tone sounds utterly bogus. When Martin sings, "If you go and leave me down here on my own, then I'll wait for you", it's clear that we're the ones missing out, that though he may be down, his smug self-sacrifice occupies the emotional high ground.
By 2005's X & Y, the band had shifted slightly from outright self-pity to broader misgivings, a move marked by the shift from first-person to second-person in songs like "Fix You" and "A Message", cunningly enlisting their audience as co-mopers through songs of solace articulating vague, windy concerns – "I'm scared about the future and I want to talk to you", "When you feel so tired and you can't sleep/Stuck in reverse", etc – invariably resolved in mealy-mouthed platitudes like "I will try to fix you" and "You don't have to be alone".
There's no real sense of grappling with the social or political causes of the problems, just a bland emotional poultice applied to the wound. They've become the sonic security-blanket for millions of fans, their tracks sweeping by with the epic solemnity of state funerals, their huge, heartbreaking chord changes sucker-punching you with emotional logic while sapping any anger or political engagement – in the existential sense – that you might otherwise experience. Instead, Chris Martin offers a consoling arm around the shoulder and a nice cup of tea. But rarely can a claim have been less borne out by circumstance than "I will fix you": with Coldplay, it's never more than cold comfort.
In this respect, the band's name is one of the most appropriate in rock. It's redolent of pale complexions and dead emotions: whenever I hear it, it always evokes a glassy-eyed fish on a fishmonger's slab, ice melting from its scales. Ironically, it was coined by Tim Rice-Oxley, who had stopped using it for his own band as he considered it "too depressing". Rice-Oxley was apparently invited to join Coldplay, but instead chose Keane, which suggests a serious frying pan/fire interface. Still, at least it wasn't Snow Patrol or Athlete, the weediest of the Coldplay copyists trailing in the band's wake.
Sometimes, it seems as if an entire generation of UK indie bands has been blighted by their slavish adoption of the Coldplay formula, with would-be anthemic hooks and choruses, gushing affectations of maudlin sincerity, and the sort of deracinated, wholefood 'n' soymilk attitudes that are steadily strangling the life out of rock'n'roll. With luck, the wheel will turn again and drop them in the dumper, as it did with the laddish Oasis copyists that preceded them. But at least Oasis promulgated the kind of spirit and energy that galvanises the soul, rather than the notion that all problems can be assuaged by impotent sympathy set to repetitive piano ostinatos.
The band's political emptiness is most glaring in the ironically titled "Politik", whose list of vague demands ("Give me time and give me space, give me real don't give me fake...") and call to "open up your eyes" betray a dismal lack of political coherence.
They're not entirely to blame, I concede, nor are they alone in their simpering revisionism: for just as Thatcherism brought a wave of arrogant, sod-you selfish celebrocracy to Eighties pop, so, too, did Blairism effectively wipe out the ideological component of modern pop, emptying it of grass-roots political impetus in favour of less troublesome, easily harnessed celebrity-gesture politics. Not even Tony Blair, though, could be as bereft of driving principle as a band who sing – as Coldplay have – "I'm going to buy a gun and start a war/If you can tell me something worth fighting for". So, just how long a list do you want, lads?
On another, possibly longer, list, there's plenty more to dislike about Coldplay – most of it, admittedly, concerning Chris Martin, the world's least impressive rock star by virtually any criteria connected with rock'n'roll as we know it. There's the celebrity-spouse syndrome that casts Chris 'n' Gwynnie as the scented-candle, low-fibre equivalent of Brad 'n' Ange; the scrubby non-beard that Chris Martin shares with Jensen Button (have you ever seen the two of them together in the same place?); calling a child Apple, rather than, say, Veal (far tastier, and less likely to get bullied at school); and much more besides.
But for me, it's the band's anguished professions of supposed political concern, while simultaneously indulging the rampant self-pity of the most cosseted, comfortable constituency of music fans the world has ever known – that's the most irritating aspect of Coldplay. Rock'n'roll used to be a rallying cry, a clarion call; now, in their hands, it's just a palliative.