Following an enormously successful album with a new record is never easy. First, there's the hype and the expectations that the artist is trying to live up to, and then there's the added pressure from the many who are waiting with a fine-tooth comb to rip the album to pieces. This is precisely why some of the most anticipated releases end up getting the most criticism, and the very reason behind one hit wonders and sophomore slumps. The pressure is enough to put an artist in defensive mode, as a result of which they end up getting stuck in the mould of the songs that gave them the initial success, unwilling (and sometimes unable) to try anything different.
So when A Rush Of Blood To The Head ended up selling over 10 million copies, the question that came to mind was this: what would Coldplay do next? True they were past the sophomore step, the one that so many stumble at, but what would they do on number three?
And when first single 'Speed Of Sound' got one too many comparisons to 'Clocks', the ringing of the alarm bells was way too loud to go unnoticed. Had Coldplay too succumbed to the pressure? Listen to the first few tracks on X&Y and you will probably be inclined to answer in the affirmative. But a couple of songs and some fifteen minutes later, you'll find reason to change your mind. With some luck (and a little help from Kraftwerk), the album takes a turn for the better, and for the most part, sticks to this improvement.
Everything from the album opener 'Square One' to track number three 'White Shadow' is standard Coldplay material. While the songs aren't bad per se, there's nothing special about them. We've heard similar stuff from the group way too many times, which is why these songs don't register a wow. Similarly, 'Fix You', the second single off X&Y, is an exercise in predictability - not one listener, fan or denigrator, would be surprised to hear the same safe song scheme once again on a Coldplay record. Song number five, however, offers the first signs of variation. The album starts on the route to recovery with 'Talk', a track that's built around the synth-line to Kraftwerk's 'Computer Love' and makes even better use of the guitar lick than the original song. A very wise move in all absoluteness. When you can't come up with something new, borrow. Always works. Stealing, though, is a completely different issue.
Songs like the piano-glazed 'Hardest Part', the very U2-ish 'A Message', hidden track 'Til Kingdom Come' (the song that was originally written for the late Johnny Cash who passed away before he could record it), 'Swallowed In The Sea' with its dirge-reminiscent start, and title track X&Y which holds some great musical moments, save the album from falling into the abyss of all-things-unmemorable. The lyrics however leave a lot of question marks. While tracks like 'Fix You' and 'Til Kingdom Come' offer some lyrical gems, many of the other songs (including 'Speed Of Sound') are perhaps the most ambiguous lines Chris Martin has ever penned down. The socio-political commentary (if any) is lost beneath layers of overly vague verses, although love, loss and insecurity appear to be the predominant themes underlying Martin's words. I wonder if being married to Gwyneth Paltrow had anything to do with it.
But the lyrics aren't the only mystery hosted by X&Y. The album cover art follows suit, and left fans wondering as to what it referred to until the secret was finally revealed. What appear to be coloured blocks put together in a seemingly random pattern is actually a message in the Baudot code. The front cover simple reads the album name, X&Y. And what does the back say? 'Make trade fair'. Yeah, should've guessed! A fine attempt at making up for a rather plain album by thrusting an intriguing mysterious message on the listener for deciphering in their spare time.
Ultimately, for me, the untainted sound of Parachutes still remains the best Coldplay release to date, even though it was Rush... that garnered the most acclaim. But I wouldn't draw a line over 'X&Y' altogether. The album might be a bit formulaic and at places it might even sound like Coldplay are recycling tunes, but after giving the album a couple of listens, X&Y, like all previous Coldplay records, has the power to get the listeners hooked. That said, I know Coldplay isn't everyone's cup of tea. Yet, it's very hard to stay indifferent to their stuff: while some can't get enough of the band, others hate their music with a passion. And after listening to X&Y, none of them are likely to change their mind.
- By Sameen Amer
Instep, The News - 11th September, 2005