So here's a throwaway quote from Coldplay's Chris Martin on the making of X&Y, the band's highly anticipated new album:
"It was very hard for our friends and family, because we became very focused and weren't very easy to talk to. And when we finished the album, we had to try and make friends with people again and try to save our relationships."
Three years ago, no one would've really cared about this statement. Now it's the type of quote that makes tabloids drool ... partially because Coldplay have sold more than 17 million albums worldwide and are, arguably, the second-biggest rock act on the planet, but mostly because, within the past three years, Martin has married Gwyneth Paltrow, aligned himself with causes like Drop the Debt, had a few run-ins with the paparazzi, and fathered possibly the most famous child ever named after a piece of fruit.
Point being, there are a whole lot of people paying attention to Coldplay these days. Fan and industry expectations for X&Y are almost impossibly high (it'll have to both resonate longer and sell more copies than 2003's globe-uniting A Rush of Blood to the Head to be considered a success). And now that Martin is the band's breakout -- actually probably only -- star, it's pretty safe to say that this is the first record where his lyrics will be analyzed with a fine-toothed comb. And so, with all that in mind, and with the gaze of millions of eyes upon them, how would Coldplay respond?
By making X&Y a complex, shimmering, airy, dark, near-ambient, stadium-rocker of an album that manages to sound (in sections) like Brian Eno, the Beatles, Grandaddy, Mercury Rev and Basil Poledouris' score to "Conan the Barbarian" -- but also like every Coldplay album ever released. Which is no easy feat.
"Square One" kicks things off with a wash of gauzy synths that give way to Martin's mellow falsettos ("You're in control/ Is there anything you want to know?") and drummer Will Champion's speedy, breakbeat cadences. Then there's a keyboard line that recalls "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey," or, more importantly, wrestling legend Ric Flair's entrance music) and a guitar solo straight out of a Bond flick. And just as soon as the whole din begins, it disappears, replaced by strummed acoustic guitar and the pitter-patter of electronics.
The somber "What If?" is next, with Martin singsonging, "What if there was no light/ Nothing wrong and nothing right?" over plodding piano chords. Below the surface, strings bubble and simmer until the whole thing boils over in a guitar freakout unlike any the band has committed to tape (the first of many such guitar flare-ups on the disc).
"White Shadows" is a spacey stomper with twisting guitars competing for space atop mammoth drums and droning synths. "Fix You" switches gears, eschewing electronic beats for a creaky church organ that gives way to Martin's mentions of "lights guiding you home" and then a more traditional piano line.
The synths return on the atmospheric "Talk," creating a shimmering landscape complete with lakes of droning guitars and forests of electronic frippery. (When Martin recently told MTV Europe that ambient pioneer Brian Eno visited the bandmembers while they were recording, he wasn't joking.) The album's title track is next, a vaguely Middle-Eastern number that recalls A Rush of Blood's "Daylight" and piles some very pretty strings over all sorts of bubbling electronics.
The first single, "Speed of Sound," follows, and it's about the strangest track the band could've selected to serve as its grand return to the spotlight. Martin's voice is cocooned by the pulses of an electric piano and synth chords that give way to a driving piano line and circling guitars, making the whole thing sound strangely like a minor version of "Clocks."
"A Message" is a sappy, love-struck ballad, with Martin strumming his acoustic guitar and warbling lines like "my song is love" and "heavy hearts made of stone." "Low" is the direct opposite, a straight-ahead rocker with a snapping drum beat and an aggressive bass line. But about three-quarters of the way through, Coldplay give it up, and the entire track dissolves into sine waves of keyboards and the gentle tinkling of a tiny xylophone (making it sound like one of baby Apple's playthings). "The Hardest Part" picks right back up with the piano/synth combo ... for a minute you start to get a bit bored with it all, but then the album snaps back to life with "Swallowed in the Sea."
"Sea" is intriguing with its lumbering low end and squeaky electronic noises that crash against a dirgey/dreamy guitar line. As the tune picks up steam, guitars explode and the rhythm section gets all hot and bothered while Martin brags that he "could write a song 100 miles long."
"Twisted Logic" borrows heavily from Pink Floyd, with dark-tinged guitar chords melting in with Martin's thudding piano lines. And the album concludes with a hidden track, " 'Til Kingdom Come," a shambling guitar tune recorded in one take. Martin's weary voice distorts in the microphone amidst some nifty piano work. And just as quickly as it starts, it's over, fading out like the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."
So what to make of X&Y? It's an organic electronica album. An minimalist, experimental disc with a whole bunch of power chords. Brian Eno for frat guys. Read into it what you will, but at the end of the day, it's still a Coldplay album. Which is probably what they were gunning for all along.