In Defense Of Coldplay’s ‘X&Y’

Carl Williott | June 5, 2015 6:00 am
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With the unexpected and total domination of A Rush Of Blood To The HeadColdplay had become the biggest band in the world in the span of just two albums. So follow-up X&Y was their first project as the reigning kings of arena rock, and while it did nothing to suggest they didn’t belong at the top it was almost instantly seen as a disappointment upon its release on June 6, 2005. The reviews were generally favorable, but the positive ones read more like resigned acceptance while the negative ones took offense with the album’s inoffensiveness.

In recent years, a backlash to the Coldplay backlash has gained steam, yet even in a world where Stereogum and Pitchfork come to the defense of the most successful band in the land, that third album is spoken of as a lost cause. But with 10 years to absorb it, forget about it and revisit it, I’ve come to the conclusion that X&Y is a more ambitious album than it gets credit for, and that it might even be appreciated in some distant future.

Hidden somewhere in X&Y, there’s an adventurous, almost concept album about space and technology. The LP is filled with lyrics about galactic travel and flight, its very first notes reference 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a Kraftwerk interpolation and a loose binary code theme overhangs the proceedings. That latter feature is apparent from the “X&Y” title to the Baudot code album artwork to the alternating loud/soft tracklist. And shoehorned into all that interstellar fuckery, for some reason, is what was meant to be a Johnny Cash collab (he died before recording with Coldplay). On paper, this was a bold and quite possibly weird album.

But in Coldplay’s hands, it sounded decidedly less adventurous — perhaps the absurd 18-month, three-version recording slog watered everything down. After all, when you compose an album the way Congress tries to pass a bill, you’re bound to grind any sense of discovery into dust and airbrush the remaining blemishes. And yet, it’s perversely impressive how they made potentially risky choices sound so inconsequential. From this album onward, every influence and idea that came into Coldplay’s orbit got sucked into a black hole and spat out into an alternate dimension of weepy stadium crescendos. “Talk” is the best example: I defy you to find another band that would sample Kraftwerk with the clear intent of making it not sound like Kraftwerk… and actually pull it off! Shoegaze, EDM, Bowie, the same thing would happen to these reference points once they floated too close to Coldplay’s event horizon.

This Chris Martin-ization of every outside element gives the album the overall feeling that everything was calculated and diagrammed out before it was put to tape, whereas the first two albums had moments of spontaneity and imperfection. X&Y was the when the “too perfect, too clean, too safe” criticisms took hold.  Yet the pristine nature of the album is an achievement in consistency and scale. The futurist obsession spawned a consistent texture that elegantly bridged the gap between rock’s analog past and its just-beginning digital future. At that time, most electronica in rock was meant to agitate and isolate the listener, but on X&Y the artificial touches were there to swaddle the listener, like the coils of a heated blanket.

Regardless of whether a song was soft, loud, upbeat or dreary, there was a blissful, spacey undercurrent here, with something always fluttering in the margins or gleaming in the distance. Peerless production didn’t preclude the album from having duds, of course. Mope-rock filler like “What If” and “A Message” are some of the band’s lowest points. But even so, Parachutes and the stadium-sized Rush Of Blood sound thin and brittle compared to even the weakest moments on X&Y, thanks to this steady, glistening layer of activity which would serve as the template for all subsequent Coldplay albums — even the subdued Ghost Stories had a small-scale decadence to it.

But in the garage rock-reviving times of 2005, flaws were still a marker of authenticity for guitar-wielding acts, so the clinical and calibrated richness of X&Y was immensely uncool. This despite the fact that Jonny Buckland hit a bunch of alt cred sweet spots. On songs like “Square One,” “Fix You” and “Low,” he brandished crisp Interpol-meets-The Edge post-punk repetitions. Elsewhere he channeled R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, with his crystalline leads on “White Shadows” and “Talk” evoking the peals of “The One I Love,” and “The Hardest Part” recalling Buck’s pseudo-Western jangle. This was a surprisingly solid guitar album, but it was too much bleach and not enough Bleach.

Such proudly glossy perfectionism is always considered corny in its time, only gaining the respect of the cool kids much later. Just look at disco, solo Phil Collins, ’90s R&B: These were all eminently lame as they were happening, and they all had cachet in subsequent eras because the production values, songcraft and sheer talent stood the test of time. This type of critical reevaluation is happening to an even greater degree in the wake of poptimism, and a prime 2010s example is Destroyer‘s Kaputt, which was a critical darling for repurposing ’80s adult-contempo goop, reimagining Steve Winwood as millennial bedroom pop. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a Coldplay-influenced version of that in 20 years, and X&Y would be the pristine and benign album at the center of such a project. Hell, “Fix You” alone could influence an entire generation of post-ironic power balladeers.

And that’s all because X&Y is a collection of well-executed songs with impeccable detailing. It is not a masterpiece, but it’s not the insipid slab of generic, big-budget rock that it’s made out to be. To prove it, listen to Mumford & Sons soporific, X&Y-aping new album, and you’ll really see how bad “bad Coldplay” actually sounds.