Coldplay typecast as good guys
British band keeps its fans happy, but has found reinvention difficult
There is no arguing Coldplay has been an omnipresent force on the pop-rock scene for the past decade, but what is it about the British quartet that has enabled them to endure for so long?
Coldplay's rise to fame was never rooted in a reputation for being cuttingedge innovators or rock saviours. Instead, the success of the band, which plays in Vancouver Friday and Saturday, can be attributed to something far simpler: inoffensive, accessible, feel-good appeal.
Let's rewind to June 2001. Coldplay was touring North America with a set consisting of every song on debut album Parachutes.
Their concerts included a pretty spectacular rendition of hit single Yellow, complete with a giant mirror ball sending myriad yellow stars spinning around the room - that number being the sole draw for many of those in attendance at such venues as Montreal's Metropolis, Toronto's Warehouse and Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre.
In My Place was the encore, a song that would become the entry point for 2002's sophomore and best effort A Rush of Blood to the Head, an album that is arguably Coldplay's artistic peak. But another song made its way into the set, and you won't find too many mentions of it these days: Hank Williams' forlorn classic Lost Highway.
This may have been Coldplay at its edgiest, doing a song that didn't require Chris Martin singing 'woah-ooh-ooah' at the top of his lungs, no megaphones, no confetti or streamers raining down from the ceiling and certainly no lasers.
Coldplay playing Lost Highway had a subtle hidden meaning: it represented four guys lost on the road, swept up in a sea of hype and coasting on unexpected success, unsure of what was supposed to happen next.
We all know what did happen: Coldplay became a stadium-filling tourdeforce that dominated the media. Covering Lost Highway also gave the band a certain sense of music-nerd cred: here was a British pop-rock band showing love for one of America's biggest country music legends, one that most of their crowds barely knew.
It wasn't exactly an innovative thing to do, but it showed a band willing to experiment beyond its borders. After all, Parachutes was, as Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine once wrote after Radiohead abandoned guitar-rock for electro weirdness on 2000's Kid A, the album that made Coldplay "everything Radiohead weren't, but what the public wanted them to be."
There was something immediately accessible about the freshfaced bunch, especially in Chris Martin's good-guy appeal. Most importantly, his persona was easier to identify with than the weird and tortured Thom Yorke.
It didn't hurt that the love story between Martin and actress Gwyneth Paltrow was keeping at least one fourth of Coldplay on the magazine stands.
If Coldplay was considered a younger generation's U2, Martin didn't pretend his band was changing the world. Coldplay just played anthems people could lose themselves in.
Coldplay connected with just about everyone. They had become pop stars.
It didn't take long for imitators to crop up: Single Clocks became the most plagiarized piano line of the past decade (how many commercials have readapted the melody to sell their products?), with drummer Will Champion's pounding beats becoming the blueprint for a pile of sub-par alt-rock.
Just as so many tried to emulate Radiohead at the turn of the millennium, all of a sudden it was all about trying to sound like Coldplay.
Unlike Radiohead, Coldplay was never afforded the luxury to truly reinvent itself. Each new album since X&Y in 2005 has retained the basic essence of the band, whether on 2008's Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends or on last year's Mylo Xyloto, both recorded with luminary Brian Eno. Both featured notable sonic reinvention, namely less piano balladry and Martin falsetto, more earthy tones, and a slicker pop direction on Mylo Xyloto.
Ironically, much-imitated Coldplay began to look like imitators themselves.
Viva La Vida's French Revolution-style costumery and marching band imagery in videos like Violet Hill were certainly reminiscent of classic rock pageantry, but also strangely in tune with indie trailblazers Arcade Fire's emotive populism from Funeral, the landmark album recorded around the same time as X&Y.
Coldplay was also accused of lifting elements from guitarist Joe Satriani's If I Could Fly on Viva La Vida, but the case was dismissed.
Unfortunately, not every new approach worked on Mylo Xyloto. What could have been a grand statement felt more like a series of missed opportunities. Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall was a detour into the insufferable nu-folk trend, and Paradise was a shiny, anthemic number, with little depth lifting the underlying elements of candy pop.
Mylo Xyloto was a superproduced affair that showed Martin and pals not as grabbing the world and shaking it up, but as being shaken by it, trying to remain in tune with a new generation of music fans learning about Coldplay.
The downside is that it has made Coldplay look like a band that's trying to hang on, rather than one willing to dictate where it wants to go.
By playing the "good guy" and always aiming to please its fanbase, Coldplay has remained at the top, but it may have done so at the cost of its freedom for authentic artistic reinvention.