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Pick of the Month October 2002

A Rush of Blood To the Head
Artist: Coldplay
Label: Parlophone Records (UK)/Capitol (US)
Length: 11 Tracks/54:12 min

These days, when a British band shifts seven-figure quantities of albums in the US, it is such a rare event that it warrants further analysis. A few years ago, with Sixteen Stone and Razorblade Suitcase, Bush proved that the Brits could rock like its Seattle counterparts. Meanwhile, with What’s The Story… and Be Here Now, Oasis demonstrated the sad fact that millions of people are susceptible to buying reconstituted, reprocessed rock just as long as it is accompanied by a huge dose of hype and an even larger dose of bad behavior. Coldplay, on the other hand, do not possess any of these characteristics. Their music displays little influence of Americana; their debut album Parachutes floated in on a breeze of complimentary reviews but nothing more; and as for “rock star” antics, well the scope for such things could be adequately imagined when singer Chris Martin revealed in an interview that he is teetotaler. In fact, it seems that it is the very lack of these traits that helped to endear Parachutes to five million people worldwide since in many ways Coldplay fulfills the nice, well-spoken and “awfully” polite English stereotype that has long been championed in Hollywood films. Of course, the fact that “Parachutes” was choc-full of mournful yet hook-laden songs, which were brought to life in Chris Martin’s yearning, mature-before-its-time voice, might also have had something to do with it.

Given the above it is unsurprising to learn that with the entirely inappropriately titled A Rush of Blood To the Head, Coldplay have decided not to tinker too much with their successful musical formula. While this is not necessarily a problem in itself, unfortunately this time around the quality control is not as stringent as it should have been. On the positive side, “Politik” kicks things off in fine style, building from an aggressive (by Coldplay’s meek standards) intro, through a mesmeric vocal and into a spacious finale where Chris Martin bemoans the current state of the world with a plea to “Give me love over this.” It leads into recent single, “In My Place,” a track which could well have been lifted off Parachutes, and which summarizes all the good qualities of Coldplay: gentle, lilting guitar lines wrapped around plaintive vocals and finished off with a killer chorus. While the next track, “God Put a Smile On Your Face,” is also more than adequately honed, it is around this point that the uniformity of tempo and mood amongst most of Coldplay’s songs begins to become an issue. In fact, by the time the merely average numbers, “The Scientist” and “Clocks,” have ticked past, it is downright grating. From here to the end of the album it is a bit of a musical minefield, with every jewel (“Daylight,” “Warning Sign”) seemingly followed by a hiccup (“Green Eyes”, whose cod country feel and schmaltzy lyrics are not fit for public consumption).

It is de rigeur in Coldplay reviews for the music critic to compare them to Radiohead, another British band who have successfully passed the taste test on both sides of the Atlantic. Such comparisons are fallacious: Coldplay share neither the rock tendencies of Radiohead’s earlier works nor the off-kilter experimentalism of their latter albums. What Coldplay does share with Radiohead, however, is that they are a band whose music does the talking for them, where neither machismo nor vulgarity are required in order to make their point. Thus, although the lights of A Rush of Blood To the Head may only shine intermittently, it is still worthy of your support.

Vik Bansal  09/22/02 

Some bands wear their influences on their sleeve.

The members of Coldplay wear their influences on their heads. U2, Oasis, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and the Beatles all collide in this band's crystalline, sun-shiny, polished sound.

This, their crucial sophomore effort, takes the acoustic pop-rock of Parachutes and morphs it into Coldplay 2.0... an electric-guitar/keyboard version that doubles the contagious hooks and serves up one irresistible melody after another.

Lead singer Chris Martin shows he has the stuff to pursue great vocalists like Buckley and Bono, crooning and sometimes soaring into falsetto harmonies that could provoke Bono to sue for plagiarism.

Even more interesting... more frustratingly familiar... are Martin's lyrics. They walk that ambiguous line between the stuff of love songs and the stuff of spiritual soul searching. God is mentioned several times, and several of the seeming-love songs stray from earthly sentiments to meditations on mortality, judgment, and grace. Martin's a young lyricist, walking in the footsteps of great songwriters, dealing with profound themes, and here's hoping he develops a more distinctive, personal  voice.

All of this is good. And the musical highs on this album are very high indeed, making it the most impressive Brit-rock album I've heard since Radiohead's OK Comptuer. It's also the most aggressive rock-record dialogue with the Deity since All That You Can't Leave Behind.

But with maturity and courage, the band could achieve so much more. What irritates me about this album is its refusal to take risks. Coldplay have their sound nailed down to perfection... too perfectly. Every beat gets hit, every note is precise. It's more "pop" than "rock", more controlled than it should be. You're more inclined to say, "Wow, they've really practiced!" than "Whoah... where did that come from?!" After hearing it for the first time, my friend Nathan, a fan of Coldplay, remarked: "I could sense the record company standing in the studio." I agree. Every song sounds arranged to be a hit single.

Perhaps I am pushing the band to grow up too quickly... perhaps they need this foundation of perfectly executed pop before they can launch into more thrilling explorations. Time will tell if they can push themselves to grow in new directions. I imagine these songs will be transformed on the stage as the musicians discover new things they can do. 

Perhaps they will also discover some new sounds. The music here is so relentlessly bright and glossy that it feels like eating too much sugar in one sitting. More alteration in sound, more exploration of different textures and colors, would have made the journey more interesting and the bright spots even brighter. They seem so excited to have discovered a way to hit emotional high points like Radiohead or R.E. M. do three or four times on an album, that they rush to those points right away in every song. There is not enough restraint, not enough climbing. In the language of rock, if you will, it's like going straight to the sex without any courtship or kissing.

Still, no album this year has given us so many singable songs. On the radio, any one of these tracks will stand out, bright and bold, offset by the variety that has come before. (Thus, I prefer hearing Coldplay on the radio, in small doses.)

Overall, "A Rush of Blood to the Head" leaves me with one burning question: "What will they sound like in five years?"

Journey Through the Songs On "A Rush of Blood To The Head"

"Politik” is the kind of grand opening song U2 are famous for, laying down the thematic tracks for the album. It opens with a hammering of guitar-rock exclamation points, then delivers a similarly hammering series of lyrics:

Look at earth from outer space
Everyone must find their place...
Give me time and give me space
Give me real don’t give me fake
Give me strength, reserve, control
Give me heart and give me soul
Give me time give us a kiss
Tell me your politik
And open up your eyes
"Everyone must find their place..." That seems to be the theme of the album. Several songs are about folks who are lost and trying to find their way through life, trying to make sense of the chaos.

This is clearly the point of "In My Place," the first single, an infuriatingly simple and maddeningly contagious song.

I was lost, I was lost
Crossed lines I shouldn't have crossed
Yeah, how long must you wait for me?
Already we have had two songs of dialogue with God. There is a humble admission of failure, yet with a reassuring sense of eventual forgiveness and grace.

Musically, “God Put a Smile on my Face” lifts us out of the angst and sets us on a firm foundation. In spite of life's questions, the singer affirms his faith in eventual deliverance. He finds signs of benevolence.

Where do we go? Nobody knows
Don’t ever say you’re on your way down when
God gave you style and gave you grace
And put a smile upon your face…
Further, he argues that we the listeners are all messed up, as he is, and that our petty differences may not matter as much as they seem to.
Now when you work it out I’m worse than you
When you work it out, I want it too
When you work out where to draw the line
Your guess is as good as mine…
These lyrics are spacious and simple, yet they leave me grappling for an interpretation. Is this actually an exploration of our need for grace because we are all falling short of God's glory? "When you work it out I'm worse than you..." That sounds like the Apostle Paul writing that he is the worst of sinners, even though he is up at the pulpit. Is it an admittance of guilt, of being lost, and yet an affirmation of the seemingly contradictory hope in salvation?

All in all, this ambitious power-pop builds to become one of the band’s two strongest songs.

"The Scientist" is a vulnerable personal testimony, a prayer or a plea. It could be a lovers’ breakup song. Or it could be sentiments from the Last Supper or Gethesemane. After all, lines like “I set you apart” are not typical parlance of romance, but of Scripture. Here are a few lines:

I had to find you
Tell you I need you
Tell you I set you apart...
Let’s go back to the start...

Nobody said it was easy
It’s such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

I was just guessing number and figures
Pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart...

Tell me you love me, come back and haunt me
Oh, and I rush to the start...

The refrain, “I’m going back to the start” could indicate the desire for forgiveness, a clean slate, starting again. The affirmation of what the heart knows over what the head knows.

The song culminates in as clear a signpost to U2 as anything on the album, guitars crunching along the same lines as “All I Want is You” and Chris Martin crooning in falsetto with Bono-fide passion.

Then, the album reaches its peak with “Clocks,” a glorious whirling dervish of keyboards and guitar the recalls a Moby instrumental, with Martin's falsetto soaring in harmony… “You are… You are…”  Is that an answer to “I AM”?

“Daylight” crams a George Harrison riff together with a chorus that is more Bee Gees than Beatles, building to an optimistic refrain “Slowly breaking through—a daylight.”

"Green Eyes" is the song that will become a lasting pop hit sung from one lover to the next, a declaration of infatuation that’s as sweet as it is unsurprising. Sounds like they could have stolen this one from some unreleased Oasis record. But listen to the religious quality of the metaphors:
 

Honey you are a rock on which I stand
And I come here to talk
I hope you understand

Green eyes, yeah the spotlight shines upon you
How could anybody deny you?
I came here with a load
Now I feel so much lighter now that I’ve met you
Honey you should know that I could never go on without you

Green eyes
Honey you are the sea upon which I float
And I came here to talk
I think you should know
Green eyes, you’re the one that I wanted to find
Anyone who tried to deny you
Must be out of their mind....
With “Warning Sign” the album loses its footing. Instead of taking us somewhere new, it returns to another glossy, redundant melody and lesser lyrics like “I crawl back into your open arms…”

Just in time “A Whisper” takes the band down a darkened tangent, a rough grinding guitar riff, hushed chanting lyrics that offset lines that chime and roar. The lyrics suggest time running out and, again, the need for grace in the darkness.

I hear the sound of the ticking of clocks
Come back and look for me when I am lost
And what is the "whisper" that runs through the song? Is it a reference to the still small voice… the conscience… the spirit coming to the rescue?

In the darkest hour of the album, "A Rush of Blood to the Head" brings a man to the point of destroying the machine he has built, the "house" where supposedly a great deal of trouble has begun. Despair looms on the horizon, and I hear echoes of Radiohead's "Airbag": "Pull me out of the aircrash...." Taken by itself, this would be a frightening song:

I’m going to buy this place and burn it down
Stand here beside me baby in the crumbling walls...
I’m going to buy this place and see it burn
And do back the things I did to you in return…

I’m gonna by a gun and start a war
If you can tell me something worth fighting for
I’m gonna buy this place, is what I said
Blame it upon a rush of blood to the head

Again, the "head" is the problem... the acts of destruction and desperation come from the mind, not the heart. Something suicidal sounds imminent.

Sure enough, the closing song puts it all in context.

"Amsterdam" portrays the suicidal man humbled, broken, and rescued by someone who "cut me loose." And the album closes with a quiet, comforting consolation:

Time, it’s on your side…it’s no cause for concern 
The comfort and inspiration of Coldplay's focus on salvation makes them a vital band in the current music scene. They have what is missing from Radiohead’s ultimately unsatisfying journeys through the abyss. They use their powers not to shove our face into the darkness, venting their rage or angst, but to shove us through the darkness to light.

Unfortunately, they are so anxious to turn on the light that it's a little blinding. Their affirmations would be so much more resonant, with more convincing testimonies. if their music felt a little more "lived in," a little more human. Radiohead's ragged textures give us the sense they have traveled a long road and know much about life's hardships. Thus, their occasional bright spots are oh so bright and assuring. If bands could merge like corporations, I’d like to see Coldplay and Radiohead try a joint effort just to see the highs get higher and the lows get lower. One can powerfully portray the mysterious, the chaotic, and the troubling, while the other has a firm handle how to cope with such darkness. One intrigues, the other inspires.

Jeffrey Overstreet 9/24/2002
 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer  web page and in The Crossing,  a magazine for Christian artists. He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com

God gave me style and gave me grace, God put a smile upon my face.
In the universe of contemporary music where success still seems to go hand-in-hand with excess - lyrically and musically speaking - Coldplay shouldn’t be racking up album sales in the millions, as they did for their debut Parachutes. These days it often seems the only time a band wears their heart on the sleeve in a rock song is when they are screaming out venom and hate, with a matching public persona. Yet, subversively, Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin dares to sing “We live in a beautiful world” ("Don’t Panic," from their debut.) He hasn’t changed his mind since then, peppering A Rush of Blood to the Head with lyrical images of beauty, love, light and the divine, amidst effortless melodies of hope and joy - that also rock the house. 

I can’t help but lose myself in the joy of this album. If you ask me, the world needs more genuinely heartfelt songs about love, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, and how tough relationships can be. Considering this, Coldplay should, by all accounts, be sitting ducks for the secular pop music press. Lead singer Chris Martin doesn’t swear, drink or smoke; he’s an outspoken advocate for Oxfam (a “fourth rate Bono” in his own words) and his songs are often maudlin, heavy laden with sentiment and emotional hyperbole. The cringe-factor could potentially reach critical levels. Yet they pull it off, earning platinum records and critical acclaim all along. They tug at the heart without sounding saccharine, desperate or insincere. (Yes Vik, even on songs as borderline cheesy as “Green Eyes”! Hard hearts beware  this is sweetness itself.) 

What’s their secret? Perhaps it’s the honesty. The first single, "In My Place" intros with a straight-out rock beat then chimes in with a happy riff that repeats until the verse in minor key, then surges to a triumphant chorus. No mucking around with too much atmospherics, just good song writing. Coldplay clearly work hard at finding that essential  and often elusive listenable melody.  As with _Parachutes_, every song on R_ush of Blood to the Head_ has a melodic gem within a setting of driving rock rhythm ("Politik, A Whisper"), jazz/celtic lilt ("Warning Sign") straight folk (title track) and especially the album’s stadium anthem, "Amsterdam." 

Listening to this record, it reminds me how I have largely grown numb to the avalanche of CCM albums that are released every year. Music that apparently is supposed to communicate an experience of God comes across to me with all the depth of a branded jingle for soft-drink. No tension, no doubt, no questions, no challenge  in other words, safe, predictable and boring. Thankfully, bands like Coldplay are making the CCM subculture/genre increasingly irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong here, “Chris Martin” may be an anagram of “Mr Christian”, but his music is certainly no concerted evangelical effort to bring folks to salvation. Nowhere have I read or heard any of the band members professing any kind of faith. Nevertheless, something spiritual definitely shines through their music. These songs communicate an experience of the divine grounded in the fullness of life  in their celebration of relationships, the pain of separation and the joy of communion with another. Everything you need to know about God is right there.

As a solid Coldplay fan from their debut album Parachutes, I had fears that the old album #2 syndrome might take its toll on A Rush of Blood to the Head. I didn't have to worry. Coldplay clearly have their heads screwed on tighter than most, and as is obvious from several interviews I have read, they just enjoy making their music. Chris Martin was quoted as saying that they had worked so much on this album that they didn’t know whether it was good or not. Rest assured guys, it is. You keep enjoying making music, and I’ll keep enjoying listening

Brendan Boughen 9/289/2002 

 

   
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