Thursday, June 19, 2008

Viva La Vida or Coldplay’s SOTSOG?

For those who are into British rock music, the title already tells you what I'm going to talk about. For those who are not, we'll get to SOTSOG soon enough.
I've just finished listening to Coldplay's fourth studio album, the impossibly titled Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Coldplay have always insisted that their albums be named after a particular track on that respective record. Hence, Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y. The story goes that this time, they were unsure about which one track to name the album after, so they picked two!
Unfortunately, VLV is more than just painful to spell out entirely; it is, in many ways, a difficult listen as well. This is what convinces me that the parallel I'm about to make is an accurate one. I think that Coldplay's musical progression in the new millennium has been a near-as-dammit replica of Oasis' musical progression in the 1990s. This is the parallel that I will look to explore.
Oasis burst onto the music scene with the epochal Definitely Maybe in 1994 and, as Liam Gallagher would subsequently so succinctly summarize, "We’re the sound of five lads from Manchester who go on stage and fuckin' 'ave it." Definitely Maybe remains most fans' touchstone in terms of defining who Oasis are—straight up rock-and-roll that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and dares you not to get involved. There's something about the relentless chiming of Noel Gallagher's guitar and piledriving forcefield created by Tony McCarroll's (and later Alan White's) drumming that captures the mood of the 1990s, even at a distance of fourteen years. Definitely Maybe is also significant because in the repeated reincarnations of Oasis, what with numerous changes in the band's lineup, it is the one album that has served as the basic frame of reference for the band itself—from all-time live favourites to the unchallengeable influence Definitely Maybe has had on later Oasis albums.
In a peculiar way, the same can be said of Coldplay's Parachutes as well. While it would be difficult to argue that Berryman/Buckland/Martin/Champion make a type of song similar to Oasis, the fans' touchstone argument holds equally strongly here as well. Parachutes proved to be a critical success in 2000 because it was different, it was tight and the lads who created the music were overwhelmingly genuine, if not entirely lovable. Add to that the fact that Coldplay's all-time live favourites list has not be significantly altered post-Parachutes and that there are definite traces of Parachutes in "Life in Technicolor" and "Reign of Love" (both on VLV, recorded eight years after the album), it would be difficult not to see "Yellow" as Coldplay's "Live Forever" or "Shiver" as Coldplay's "Supersonic."
1995 was a great year for British music, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? was born. Three things about the album stand out. One, there is an overwhelming consistency in the album, in terms of the fact that (from a fan's perspective) every song is absolutely brilliant, to the point where, if someone had, pre-1997, said that there is no such thing as a bad Oasis song, they wouldn’t be far off the truth. Two, Morning Glory is a vertical step up from Definitely Maybe in terms of the maturity of Noel’s songwriting, the quality of music overall and in terms of the band's growing awareness, skill and popularity as a live act. Three, Morning Glory is the album that, to most ordinary people, is the summation of all of Oasis' best work, like a putative Greatest Hits album. This is also indicative of the fact that it was only after Morning Glory that Oasis were finally, indelibly imprinted on the global music lover’s psyche.
I feel extremely tempted to Ctrl C + Ctrl V the above paragraph because that is exactly what I think A Rush of Blood to the Head did for Coldplay. Same consistently brilliant music in every corner of the album, same vertical step up in songwriting, same growth in popularity as a live act (fed in no small part by Chris Martin disappearing into the crowd for extended lengths of time, much like Bono in his heyday). And yes, if you were to make a popular choice "Best of Coldplay" album, the Rush of Blood presence on that album would rival Arjun Singh’s caste/OBC reservation blueprint (sorry, I just had to do that). And while it is unfair to compare the two bands, since they have peaked in undeniably different times, for every "Wonderwall", "Don’t Look Back in Anger", "Champagne Supernova", "Some Might Say" and "She’s Electric", there is a corresponding "The Scientist", "In My Place", "Clocks", "Politik" and "Amsterdam."
To understand why Be Here Now was such a big disappointment and effectively sounded the death-knell for the Britpop movement despite having sold eleven million copies to date (to put it into perspective, that is about as many copies as Rush of Blood has sold), you have to understand what Oasis were in 1997. Almost like Noel Gallagher walking up to you and, with the air of a principal who has summoned to his office a group of errant schoolboys caught smoking in the toilet (or Vince McMahon to anyone challenging his authority in WWE), saying, "Let me remind you of exactly who the hell I am." Oasis were the biggest thing ever. Millions of albums sold globally, America broken with an imperious swagger and with an ease reminiscent of U2's The Joshua Tree ten years earlier, Beatles comparisons, tabloid spreads, magazine covers, Knebworth 1996 (which held a seven-year record for the biggest outdoor concert in British history, until surpassed, at the same venue, by Robbie Williams—"that fat dancer from Take That"), Noel's walkout on the American tour and the band's triumphant return, "I hope Damon Albarn (of Blur) catches AIDS and dies" and so much more. People weren't just expecting BHN to be a roaring success, they were expecting something absolutely mega. As Liam would later rue, "I still think it's a great album—it's just that it isn't Morning Glory." Well, honestly (and I have every reason to believe that this isn't exactly an isolated opinion), it isn't even that great an album. It's too long, it's too loud and there isn't a single second through seventy-two minutes of that album when Liam isn't singing that thirty guitar parts aren't being injected into the song (this is actually true of "My Big Mouth"). Oasis weren't even asked to cut it down, nobody dared. And initial hysteria took "D'You Know What I Mean" (which, stripped to its basics, is actually a lovely song) and "All Around the World" to UK #1. The first of these songs is 7:41, the other—the longest single to ever hit UK #1—is no less than 9:18, with a two-minute reprise at the end. Oasis would win the album sale "Battle of Britpop" against Blur (who released a single on the same day as "D'You Know What I Mean") but it was never going to be enough to rescue a reputation that, in my opinion, it took five years (and the arrival of Heathen Chemistry) to nurture back to health.
Much the same can be said of Coldplay's X&Y and the hype created around it, ever since Coldplay took a hiatus following an astonishingly good live show at Sydney in 2003. June 2005’s X&Y was billed to be a next big thing of BHN proportions. The kinder critics still maintain that X&Y signals a change in direction, towards a more obtuse, spacey The Verve-like sound. While it is a generalization that deserves some recognition, especially in the light of VLV and while "A Message" and "'Til Kingdom Come" are unloved children in a way similar to what "Don't Go Away" was to BHN, the only honest reaction to X&Y is one of bitter disappointment. Again, the songs are too long, too loud, have instruments that you know four boys from London can't possibly pull off in front of a live audience (try listening to "Low", for example) and there is an extreme poverty in songwriting, especially considering what we know Berryman/Buckland/Martin/Champion are capable of. Again, eight million in global sales is not, in any way, indicative of the album's merit, for many people now just buy Coldplay albums because it is Coldplay (this is something they now share with U2, whose 2004 release How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb achieved insane global success with minimal promotion, outside of the first single "Vertigo." In terms of musical aptitude, though, barring Will Champion, none of the others can compete with the force that is Clayton/Mullen/Edge/Bono). More than anything else, the sense of disappointment with X&Y stems from a frustration at the lack of originality, either in sound or in presentation. "Talk" is effectively Kraftwerk's song, "'Til Kingdom Come" is Johnny Cash's and "Speed of Sound" is a blatant rip-off of Coldplay's own Grammy-winning "Clocks." The Twisted Logic World Tour which Coldplay embarked on post-X&Y met with a lukewarm response as well and towards the end, I think, there was enormous relief that the ordeal was over. And perhaps also a realization that the next album had to be much, much better.
This realization hit Oasis as well, in the aftermath of BHN. Noel promptly disowned the album, a stance that continues to this day—2006’s nineteen song Stop The Clocks compilation doesn't contain a single song from the BHN era. Far from being knocked for a loop, the band put out Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants inside three years—a gritty, technically complex, demanding album, that you could feel stretching Noel’s songwriting (this was also their first album with a Liam-written song—"Little James", for his newborn son). The end-product is a curious mix of excessively psychedelic (I don't care how clich├ęd that sounds), out-of-this-world guitar riffs (try Noel's solo in "Gas Panic!"), some incredibly genuine stuff (cue "Where Did It All Go Wrong?", one of my all-time favourites) and some absolute rubbish ("I Can See A Liar").
The parallel to VLV could not be clearer. There are songs that fall into all three categories—the psychedelic ("Life In Technicolor", "Lovers In Japan", "Violet Hill"), the genuine ("Cemeteries of London", "Lost!"), the rubbish ("42", "Viva La Vida"). In fact, VLV is Coldplay’s SOTSOG purely because everything on the album falls neatly into one of the above three categories. Even Chris Martin's deliberate shunning of his much-acclaimed yet often whining falsetto is eerily reminiscent of Liam spurning his equally acclaimed yet equally irritating nose-and-throat singing style in favour of a much more conservative, grounded voice.
Call it growing pains, teething problems or whatever else, I find the new Coldplay extremely curious and more than a little risky. At least with Oasis' SOTSOG, there was some semblance of returning to the rock-and-roll formula (the return would eventually materialize in the brilliant Heathen Chemistry—for my money, as good as Morning Glory, if not better). But with Coldplay, VLV goes further away from the tried and tested formula and even a partial return to the soft complexity of Parachutes or the emotive brilliance of Rush of Blood now seems difficult. True, there are songs on VLV that grow on you, but, not surprisingly, those are the songs that you know, after the first couple of listens, are the best songs on the album anyway. Also, the decision-making has evidently gone awry because the two singles released so far—"Violet Hill" and "Viva La Vida"—are among the weakest songs on the album. This is a mistake they made with "What If" on X&Y as well, but at least then, they had an admitted understanding that picking singles is about choosing those songs that represent the true character of the album and to that extent, perhaps even "Speed of Sound" as the first single of X&Y was justifiable. However, by the same logic, neither "Violet Hill" nor "Viva La Vida" is the best way to introduce audiences to this particular product.
"I wanted us to make a record that we could die happy after making," said Chris Martin, prior to the worldwide release of VLV. However, it isn’t the return to the circa-2002 Coldplay that many people expected and, as such, with this album being very much Coldplay's SOTSOG and with touring for this album likely to keep them on the road well into 2009, it should be a while before they're in the studio again. And when they are, I, for one, will be fascinated to see how close they come to putting out their version of Heathen Chemistry.

I'm not sure if there's a point to this story but I'm going to tell it again.

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I've been wilfully caught up in the self-defeating quest to get to know myself for years. I've never expected anything beneficial to result from such a quest. I tend to evoke extremely polarised reactions from people I get to know in passing. Consequently, only those people who know me inside-out would honestly claim that I'm a person who's just "alright." It's not a coincidence that the description I've laid out above has no fewer than, title included, eleven references to me (make that twelve). I'm affectionately referred to as "Ego." I think that last statement might have given away a tad too much. Welcome Aboard.

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