Coldplay’s latest music video (“Paradise”) contains scenes of my very own Johannesburg, the Johannesburg that is within walking distance of where I live. As a journalist recently remarked, the elephant (that is really Chris Martin) does not even get mugged or end up getting his unicycle stolen. “Paradise” is a pretty, catchy tune. I even find it moving, though perhaps that has a lot to do with my patriotic little heart being swept up in the familiar panoramas. It also contains scenes of Coldplay’s very recent Johannesburg concert, and somewhere in those crowd shots are multitudes of my friends, all thrilled and thoroughly enjoying themselves. I was not there, however.
This is because my appreciation of “Paradise” (or almost any of their songs released since “Rush of Blood to the Head”, their second album) fades when I listen to “Parachutes”, their first album. It came out when I was fourteen. My brother bought a copy when he was visiting from London, and played it almost perpetually when he stayed with us. After he left, taking the CD with him, I went off to the nearest Musica and bought my own. Up until then, I had invested almost purely in compilations and soundtracks, as many of the artists I knew about or had access to at the time only produced one or two songs that I liked. Coldplay was different from the start.
My favourite song on “Parachutes” back then was “Shiver”, the second song on the album. It is about unrequited love, rejection and yet desperate devotion and longing. The song has an incredible momentum, chords crashing and early stirrings of the arpeggios on which they have come so heavily to rely. Martin’s voice is unbelievably expressive: his falsetto is soaring and his lower notes are occasionally breathy and always raw with emotion. It was the perfect song for an awkward yet imaginative teenager. Its passionate statement of constant love from afar thrilled me and while I am not so awkward or filled with desperate love longings anymore, it is still one of my favourite songs to sing along to.
The next songs to become my favourites came in a pair, mainly because they were hits, but also because they were a little literary. “Yellow” and “Trouble” are the only two songs most Coldplay fans (or people who say they are Coldplay songs, humph!) know from the album. “Yellow” is unbearably sweet and borders on synaesthesia, reminding me years later of Gatsby’s “yellow” cocktail music. “Look at the stars, look how they shine for you and all the things that you do”. The infinite appreciation of small intimacies are seldom so simply and beautifully expressed in popular music.
“Trouble” was always wonderfully melancholic. The small hesitations in the piano line and the nuanced differences they made to each repetition of the verse give the song the power of a dramatic monologue. The sliding, mournful guitar chords at the end still jolt me.
My next favourite, and perhaps, the eternal favourite of my heart, is “Sparks”. It is a slow-moving song and the gentle, almost lazy-sounding guitar chords seem to bring a physical warmth to my innards when I hear them. When I think of the chorus, “I saw Sparks”: my literal interpretation is of magical golden sparks showering over the landscape against a deep, velvety night. The metaphorical implications shift every time I listen to it. The lyrics are again, very simple but also personal and acknowledge fallibility. “My heart is yours, it’s you that I hold onto. I know I was wrong, I won’t let you down, oh yeah I will yeah I will”.
The song I under-appreciated for a long time was the opening song, “Don’t Panic”, a kind of fragment of apocalyptic pessimism in the verses, “Bones sinking like stones, all that we’ve fought for...” contrasted with the chorus: “We live in a beautiful world”. The melody line swells and ripples, and the rhythm section drives the very meaning onwards.
“High Speed” does not move me. “Spies” is a little obscure (what is this song about?) but it is atmospheric and the instrumentation is exciting. The eponymous song, “Parachutes” is a beautiful sliver and “We Never Change” is relatively abstractedly cheerful. While they may never be favourites, they soothe me and I feel uplifted after the final chords of the album have faded away.
“Rush of Blood to the Head” was more polished, you can hear the band all went out and got some extra music lessons. The emotions are still mostly there.
It is almost everything since then that makes me sad. I am not some hipster that got upset when everyone else discovered “their band”. I can appreciate the waves of electronics, catchy tunes, endlessly repeating arpeggios and hallmark physcho-babble of their recent offerings that may have roots in interesting concepts. They cannot, however, match the raw brilliance of the earlier songs. Rather than feeling uplifted after hearing their swathes of feel-good pop-inspired tunes, I feel a little depressed and like I have been offered something that feels (to me at any rate) cheap, shiny and packaged. So I couldn’t bring myself to go to their concert. I went home and skyped a friend instead.