No modern band has riled up the critics quite like Coldplay, especially given that its main crime is mediocrity. It would be one thing if Chris Martin and company were simply bad. The critics would write a two-star review and forget about it the next day. Instead, they see a talented band which refuses to meet expectations – its lyrics are too sappy, its music too derivative, its lead singer too effeminate.
The criticisms get repetitive, no matter how on-point they are. After all, Coldplay’s fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, offers an opportunity for critics to notice how much the band has changed. On the surface, the reviews have been good, as the 73 score on Metacritic attests. However, a closer look reveals that many are half-hearted recommendations.
In the A.V. Club, Keith Phipps writes:
Martin’s heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics won’t win over any doubters, but tracks like the title cut and “Lost!” should keep the hits coming, and the rest of the album will please fans hoping to hear the band push its sound a little further. But not, you know, too far.
Phipps gave the album a B+, the third-most positive review on Metacritic, yet it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. For all the band’s improvements, Phipps still focuses on Martin’s lyrical simplicity and the music’s general safeness. Notice the qualifiers, the use of the words “but” and “should.” It’s almost as if it pains him to say Viva is any good.
Phipps is not the only one to offer lukewarm praise in place of real criticism. Evan Sawdey’s review for Popmatters is practically an exercise in lowered expectations. He praises Viva for being “the least Coldplay-sounding album in the band’s discography” but then adds a ridiculously obvious caveat:
Admittedly, the band isn’t indulging in speed-metal shred-fests or cranking out a country album—this is Coldplay we’re talking about after all. Viva, instead, exhibits an enthusiasm and flat-out love of music that was virtually absent from X&Y.
No one ever asks why speed-metal or country acts don’t sound like Coldplay, but in this case, it seems fine to make this review about what the band isn’t as opposed to what it is. In addition, “enthusiasm” and “love of music” are basically nice ways of saying “well, at least they tried.”
The most predictable part of any Coldplay review is a discussion of Martin’s lack of lyrical prowess, and here Sawdey doesn’t disappoint:
Yes, Martin is still relying heavily on cliché (the “December/remember” rhyme scheme is another standby that pops up this go-round), but his rehashed sentiments withstand scrutiny far better than the clunky wording that bogged down tracks like “Fix You” and “Talk.” Martin promised that his lyrics would get better, and though he’s still not on the creative level that Matt Berninger and Will Sheff occupy, he ultimately makes good on his claim.
Noticing a pattern yet? Coldplay is not a speed-metal band. It’s not a country band. It’s not The National, and it’s not Okkervil River. All these comparisons don’t really reveal anything. Comparison is an important tool, but only when the things you’re comparing are on the same level. You might as well compare Martin to a wooden board (actually, I’m pretty sure someone already has).
While Coldplay’s relationship with critics may be unique, the underlying problems are shared by many veteran bands. Critics love young bands and debut albums because they offer a sense of discovery, but by the time a band releases its fourth album, critics have a difficult time finding anything new to say about them. Whether you like or dislike a band, your reasons for doing so usually stay the same.
With Coldplay, critics have good reason to reiterate their past grievances – the band has become massively popular in spite of them. To critics, the idea of a band like Coldplay becoming successful is troubling because it destroys their roles as gatekeepers.
When a band like Coldplay succeeds, these critics are given a difficult decision. Do you change your original opinion, or do you stay with what you originally said and decry their popularity? In this case, they’ve done neither. Instead, they’ve managed to give the band positive reviews while holding onto their past verdict, and the results have been confusing. Is this album good? So far, it seems that the critics have answered with a qualified “yes,” though their hearts don’t really seem to be into it.