The Critic’s Conundrum: What to Do With Coldplay?

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.

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3 responses to “The Critic’s Conundrum: What to Do With Coldplay?

  1. Well, I don’t know if I would call a 73 on metacritic indicative of “good” reviews… the funny thing about MC’s music criticism (and, I think, music criticism in general,) is that people seem to be much more forgiving of the meidocrity that Coldplay, in their way, sort of embodies… it’s not a fair comparison, really, to say that Coldplay is the Michael Bay of the musical galaxy, but there is a point to be made about how hard it is to be that friggin’ accessible and also lauded beyond faint praise. (“This is Coldplay, after all,” seems like something you would read about Michael Bay in a review for Transformers, which focuses on the awesomeness of the explosions and blames you for expecting Scorsese stylism, Merchant-Ivory vistas, or Tarantino tet-a-tets.)

    The funny thing about Coldplay, though, is take away the backlash, and you have a band with the occasional AWESOME song, the kind of things that really have the power to stick to the zeitgeist without leaving (like Kelis’ “Milkshake,” for example,) a horrid residue of What-Were-We-Thinking. Imagine what their reputation might have been if, instead of following up their stratospheric “Yellow”-fueled rise with a Martin-Paltrow marriage and a string of multi-platinum albums, the band had met a messy end, or Martin pulled a Cobain, or a Salinger, or something. Do you really think, that being the case, that they would be viewed post-mortem as a bunch of pretty-sounding pretty-boys with a death grip on the popular pulse but no real art, all lyrical somumbulance and biteless quasi-emo ennui, becoming one of the biggest bands in the world through the sheer market forces of the lowest common denominator? Or would they be revered as the guys who, before imploding in spectaclar fashion, gave the world “Yellow” (or “Clocks” or “The Scientist,”) one of the most beautiful one hit wonders that people in this hypothetical alternate universe had ever had the honor of hearing?

    I leave it to you, of course, to decide which fate is worse.

  2. You make a good point.

    I think a good comparison, in their own way, are Sublime. A decent band, sure, but not one that was doing anything new or all that interesting. Bradley Newell’s death made they practically beloved, to the point where Rolling Stone can give them four and a half star reviews and no one bats an eyelash.

    I never bought into the whole “death makes a band great” thing anyway. What use is being dead if you can’t profit from it?

  3. I think it’s easy to say that Coldplay is a genuinely good band. They haven’t really ever disappointed anyone and they have great, catchy tunes. Coldplay doesn’t really innovate (although some could argue they have influenced poppy, mawkish, piano-driven, bands like ‘The Fray’), but they always seem to be liked by the general public.

    I think critics like to embellish on Chris Martin’s unusual personality by applying it to his lyricism, when Chris Martin admits himself he doesn’t really know what he’s writing about sometimes… He’s kind of a weird, quirky dude.

    I don’t think their type of sentimentality should always be thought of as cheesy. They’re not trying to be overemotional and saccharine. Sometimes songs like Fix You actually do mean something, even though the lyrics might not be too complicated. Coldplay either has sweeping instrumentals and unpredictable hooks like ’42’, ‘Death and All HIs Friends’, ‘The Hardest Part’ or ‘Yes’; catchy, atmospheric sing-alongs like ‘Yellow’, ‘Clocks’, ‘In My Place’, ‘Talk’, ‘Speed of Sound’ or ‘Viva La vida; or cathartic, genuinely sentimental, and powerful tunes like ‘The Scientist’, ‘Fix You’, ‘Amsterdam’, ‘Politik’, and ‘Till Kingdom Comes’.

    Coldplay may not be the defining band of any generation, but one thing IS true: they are undeniably unique– a lasting characteristic from their inception. That’s something to be admired in a world full of tween-pop stars and over-produced pop.

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