Recently, and to a fair amount of acclaim (though not the fervent acclaim that met A Rush of Blood to the Head), Coldplay released its latest album Viva La Vida. The first time I listened to it, I thought the band had a colossal whiff — aiming for the stands and just plain missing contact with the ball. The second time I listened to it, I liked two of the songs a lot. Now I’m coming to terms with a few of the other songs. This is how I dealt with X&Y as well. I like Coldplay. As far as evoking passion, they don’t get much passion from me or anyone else from what I can tell. On the other hand, they’re absolute experts at … something, I can’t put my finger on it. And before you sophisticated music lovers start yelling, I don’t listen to the lyrics of any music really, so their possible insipidity does not bother me at all. ( But it’s best to not get me started on Chris Martin’s attempts to subject the Third World to existences of eternal poverty without trade. )
It seems, then, that this is not a band whose genius will grow into something legendary. Maybe it’s because they haven’t been challenged by a rival. In the 1960s, I have it on good authority that The Beatles and Beach Boys engaged in an “arms race” of sorts that propelled both bands to dizzying unforeseen heights of artistic expression. The story is worth recounting, briefly: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, two of the virtuosos behind their respective bands, forced each other to get better with each album. They influenced each other, beginning with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul driving the Beach Boys (read: Brian Wilson, the only one of them worth a creative damn) to produce Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney to this day calls the best album ever and moves him to tears with its melodies. In turn, McCartney went to the drawing board with John Lennon and they came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is often called their best album. According to some, this album broke Brian Wilson, whose prodigy was unleashed by the album but also broken by it. Wilson had, like perhaps Fermat grasping his Last Theorem or Nash contemplating Game Theory, become possessed by the art of the possible in his field. Unlike those two, and perhaps much more like MacArthur strategizing in Korea, he had to depend on others to realize his dream. Just as MacArthur’s vision of a united Korea and a free China was thwarted by Harry Truman, the fulminations of other Beach Boy members condemned Wilson’s potential magnum opus, SMiLE, to death. When Wilson recovered, he produced SMiLE as he thought it would have been. The result is unlike anything else that came from the 60s, or perhaps unlike anything that has ever been made. To me, the album haunts like a graveyard that evokes both a sense of the tragic and the bygone. Honestly, I have no idea what to make of it.
I think this story suggests that perhaps we have reveled in our glory of diversity and broadening of tastes too much to see a similar war. There’s too much terrain, too many niches, and too many diverse tastes for a sustained arms race to occur again. Jacks of all musical types and brands, but masters of none…? It’s a shame, for we may never know the realized potential of an artist without it. Coldplay will be doomed to just being good as opposed to being great.
Post-Script: Art criticism is difficult water to tread, if you ask me. Authors at The New York Times tackle it with brio however. In his famously scathing critique of X&Y, Jon Pareles basically writes that he hates the band because they’re full of cliches and commercially polished. Apparently, in the new era we won’t have any authentic feelings or expressions and we will cloud / shroud any and all genuine feeling with “oblique” references and metaphor. Yes, there is so much more artistry in that! How enlightened. In the event, it looks like there is still room for authenticity (“naivete” to an art critic) in the market, though increasingly less so. Ironically, the review crushed Martin and his bandmates to the extent that they allegedly consciously sought a makeover at the hands of Brian Eno. Hence, Viva‘s supposed break from past Coldplay albums.