Tag Archives: Wall of Sound

Don’t worry Coldplay, I still love you

Fun-loving guys, not that you’d know it from the humorless Anton Corbijn photograph.

What’s with the Coldplay hate?  Google “Coldplay criticism” and you’ll find oodles of articles and blog posts slagging the successful English pop quartet for any number of ills including but not limited to vapid lyrics, uninspired melodies, unabashed sentimentality, and that most lethal of sins in the music world, being popular.  I suppose the pile-on of sour grapes might be understandable if Coldplay were a bunch of pretentious, unapologetic douches (a la Chris Brown), but that certainly isn’t the sense you get from them in interviews, or more importantly, in performance – no walking off the stage in a huff of profanity mid-set because there were brown M&M’s in the candy bowl.  No one, even their most ardent supporters, will claim that Coldplay are edgy, envelope-pushing avant-garders, but I’m not convinced that’s what they’ve ever wanted to be.  They are not tortured Van Goghs forcing music out through their pores in relentless emo wrist-cutting agony.  Throughout their career, they have never failed to lose sight of the goal that most musicians, ostensibly, set out to achieve – to entertain.  Last summer I wrote about seeing Hugh Jackman’s show and how his sheer love of his job elevates the act of performance into an unforgettable experience; Paul McCartney at 70 is the same, and so are Coldplay.  After every few songs, frontman Chris Martin will pause to ask the crowd, and not insincerely, “Everybody okay?”  You get the sense that if but one person were to answer in the negative, Coldplay would take it personally.  He and the band recognize, unlike many embittered bands that have gone before, that they are there because of the people smiling back at them, and they owe it to every ticket buyer to give it their all.

Martin himself is an unlikely rock star – a thin, thoughtful, fairly good-looking English kid with a decent but not exceptional voice vaulted almost against his will into the stratospheric realm occupied by the likes of Bono.  Like U2’s leader, he struggles to reconcile his absurd success and wealth with the plight of the less fortunate through activism, stumbling to follow in the footsteps of the one who forged the path and continues to cast an ever-imposing shadow over both men:  John Lennon.  Lennon went through his period of evolution too, once he got the silly love songs out of his system and turned his focus first inward, then outward at the craziness of a war-obsessed world, finding a way to unite both that remains unmatched.  As a songwriter, Martin’s focus has always been on his feelings, and his lyrics have struggled to articulate the complexity of relationships, sometimes, as even he will admit, with rhymes that don’t quite gel.  Any good storyteller knows the key to creating resonance is to focus on the emotions that we all share, and Coldplay would not connect with so many fans were Martin not on to something with the words he sings.  But even Dylan wouldn’t have gone anywhere had he not been able to put the words to memorable tunes, and this is where Coldplay truly shines.  Taking a cue, perhaps, from Phil Spector and the kitchen sink approach of the Wall of Sound, Coldplay have, in their best songs, crafted melodies that are symphonic in their scope, using piano and string craftily without overdoing it, without tipping into syrup.  They think and act big.  “Viva la Vida” became their biggest hit because of its cinematic feel – to extend the movie metaphor, it was like a polished Cecil B. DeMille epic sprung on an era accustomed to smirking, Dogma 95, stripped-down, low-budget garage angst.  And in subject, Martin veered away from the plight of the heart, tiptoeing into the Shakespearean realm of the lament of fallen kings.  Overwrought?  The potential was there certainly, but it never materialized.  Coldplay were smart enough not to make the whole album sound like that, which made “Viva la Vida” that much more special.

Their latest album, Mylo Xyloto, continues their collaboration with U2’s veteran producer Brian Eno, who is succeeding in pushing the band to go big without, as U2 sometimes does, forgetting what made them what they are in the first place.  Coldplay will always be Coldplay, and there is something comforting in that, like the favourite sweater you love pulling on after the work week is done.  Hipster music critics forever trying to elevate thoroughly mediocre bands to undeserved pedestals (The Strokes, anyone?) detest guys like Berryman, Buckland, Champion and Martin because they defy the expectation that real music must always come from a place of pain, and that true musicians are somehow better than the rest of us mortals – that they are more plugged in to the soul and how to express it through song.  Where Coldplay get it right is recognizing that amidst all the existential suffering, the soul wants to be happy.  It wants a reason to smile.  Why not then indulge that – make music that makes the listener feel as good as the performer?  If I want to be depressed and think that the world is an empty, meaningless, cynical place, I’ll put on the Lou Reed record.  I’ve always been more about the hope that things are better than I think they are, and for that purpose, Coldplay is ideal.  When Chris Martin asks “Everybody okay?”, he’s letting us know that he and his bandmates truly do care that we are.  I think that’s something to celebrate, not sneer at.

Awesome Albums 2: All Things Must Pass

In the mind of the spiritual man, God and the Father are interchangeable.  Questions of the nature and meaning of our existence are often posed to both the visible parent and the unseen creator; or, if the parent has passed, to both as one.  These questions are what drive us to grow, to pursue, to create, even if we know, instinctively, that the answers will remain forever elusive.  Questions are a great gift; the capacity to ask, to be curious, is the beginning of the journey to become greater than we are.  All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s 1971 solo debut, is an album full of questions – questions, perhaps, that he had never felt comfortable asking in the company of John, Paul and Ringo.  The songs contained within are not the boy George who complained about the government on “Taxman,” or who idolized Pattie Boyd in “Something.”  These are the cries of a man deeply in tune with his spiritual nature, who is looking both above and within for the answer, and challenging the rest of us to do the same.  George Harrison’s gift was the ability to blend the spiritual with the spirit of rock and roll, and as hard as the album rocks from track to track, even couched beneath producer Phil Spector’s reverb-drenched Wall of Sound, the thread of the pilgrim remains potent and strong – the road ahead clean and clear.  Rarely has a journey inside a man’s soul ever sounded so good.

Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam, interviewed for the Concert for George film that documented a tribute put on by Harrison’s best friends one year after his death, described with glee the show’s juxtaposition of Indian ragas and the surviving Pythons’ rendition of “Sit On My Face,” calling it a perfect reflection of the heights and depths of George’s tastes.  I’ve written about my fascination with the contradiction in the human heart, and George Harrison is another shining example – a retiring, quiet soul most at home working in the garden who nonetheless chose a career that made him one of the most famous men in the world.  Gardens are a potent metaphor for George’s solo career; his songs can almost be thought of as seeds of thought he plants in your mind, that grow with care and attention each time you give them a listen.  From the gorgeous “I’d Have You Anytime,” his collaboration with Bob Dylan that opens the album, the beseeching mantra of “My Sweet Lord,” the electronic wail of “Wah-Wah,” the gently cautionary “Beware of Darkness” and the lush title track to name but a few, the music here is deep, layered and elegant.  “Stripped-down,” a favourite label among rock critics, does not apply here – some of the tracks even verge on operatic.  But that is only because of the sheer substance in each.  The album has been described elsewhere as an outpouring of material that George had been unable to showcase in his time with the Beatles because of the wattage of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue – an Old Faithful eruption of creativity, if you will.  Yet the songs are polished and crafted with a great deal of care, George having recruited many good friends, the best in their game (including Eric Clapton) to assist him in preparing his long-gestating message to the world.

John Lennon asserted that all you need is love.  George Harrison agrees, but he views love differently.  To George, the love between a man and his god is just as important as the love between a man and his partner, while never suggesting that one should exceed the other.  “Awaiting On You All,” while superficially a rocking celebration of the perceived power of mantra, dares the listener to break free of the ritualistic trappings of religion and experience the purity of untethered spiritual love.  You come to realize as the album draws to a close that the questions George has been asking throughout are not necessarily directed at God, or a father – but at you.  Of course he still has doubt – “My Sweet Lord” and “Hear Me Lord” are cries of faith in crisis – but George is forcing you to confront your own as well.  In “Run of the Mill,” he sings that “With no one but yourself to be offended, it’s you that decides.”  He can’t answer the question for you, all he knows for certain is that you should be asking it.

Paul McCartney once said that one of the things he was proudest of about the Beatles was that their music was positive; that it never called for anger or violence, but rather repeated, like a mantra, the need for and the power of love.  George Harrison ran with the torch following the split of the Fab Four, singing of the essence of love on a much more philosophical plane.  Throughout his life, George looked for answers in India, in the humor of the Pythons, and in the very fabric of creativity.  Yet he was aware of the transitory nature of existence, that seasons are forever changing, that the world remains in motion, and for him, it was a source of optimism.  “All Things Must Pass” says that “it’s not always gonna be this grey.”  Indeed, we may not find all our answers in this life.  The Greek philosopher Zeno postulated a theory of motion whereby one crosses a distance with each step exactly half the span of the step before, so that even though you never arrive at your destination, you are always moving forward towards it.  That was the life and career of George Harrison, forever questioning and somehow being okay with not ever truly learning what it’s all about – the sort of ego-free humility before the wonders of the universe that marks the purest, the most transcendent of souls:  the poets.