My favorite piece of music criticism this year is one of those cut-and-paste subway collage hack jobs which, if you’re riding the New York subways right now, is pretty much the only entertaining aspect of the whole frustrating, delay-ridden affair. At the Graham Ave stop on the L, someone’s combined this currently ubiquitous photo of Coldplay with State Farm’s slogan: “I’m there.” This is a perfect mash-up, suggesting that Coldplay’s excitement level is roughly on par with the banality of purchasing car insurance. They’re just ... there, floating in the environment.
It is, apparently, my job to write 2,000 words every time Coldplay deliver another commercial juggernaut—they hit while I was in high school, at precisely the right time (I needed pretty angst—I was 16, give me a break), and though my taste for maudlin Britpop is mostly in recession, I still have a soft spot for the dudes. Also, they have a lot of really, really angry people on their ass, which is always interesting. When X & Y dropped, I was puzzled at the freakishly disproportionate levels of vitriol. The best I could do by way of explanation: “[they] claim the innovations of Brian Eno ... without his ambitions, and that means that something once outsider-ish and vaguely transgressive is now so mainstream as to be on soft-rock radio, and that must surely bother early Eno adopters.” I still think I’m basically right: Coldplay have the exact same record collection as you, super-awesome-taste music fan, they just run with it straight for the blandest direction, bastardizing Kraftwerk into radio hits.
Now it’s 2008, and the release of Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends is raising blood pressure again, and this time Eno’s there to back them up all the way behind the boards. Andy Gill claims their name “evokes a glassy-eyed fish on a fishmonger’s slab, ice melting from its scales” before going on to somehow prove that this is yet another bad thing Tony Blair is responsible for, which seems kind of silly. But Gill’s from the UK, and I suppose he has every right to be annoyed that Coldplay is Britain’s most-prominent musical face to the world. Far less explicable is a spectacularly bitchy close-reading of the band’s MySpace page from Virginia Heffernan, who, among other things, claims Martin “actually sounds as if he’s trying very hard to suppress his arrogance and near-American showoffiness.” You can’t be too overtly self-loathing for some people; either Martin is or isn’t the blandest frontman ever (the former’s correct), but you can’t claim that his blandness is a manifestation of secret arrogance. Dude doesn’t even know how to dress. Meanwhile, hell is freezing over because Pitchfork kinda-sorta-maybe liked the album (6.5! “Lost!” is a “uniquely alluring smash”! “Strawberry Swing” is “spectacular”! etc. etc.).
I can’t really get too exercised about all this either way at this point, though in all fairness I must stand against the surprising amount of people Coldplay has unexpectedly gotten to stop hating them and point out that this album, even by their own standards, is pretty weak. When X & Y came out, Chris Martin made a really spectacular admission: his lyrics aren’t good! “One thing we’re working on is our lyrics,” he announced. “They’re about to get brilliant.” I was really waiting to see what he came up with, but it’s SOP: “Just because I’m losing doesn’t mean I’m lost” is how “Lost!” kicks off. So that’s still a wash, even if there’s nothing as painful as “Talk” ’s howler “Do you feel like a puzzle you can’t find your missing piece.” But the music is definitely more tasteful, which is to say more economical with the running times (thank God) and less prone to histrionics.
But the last thing the world needs is a tasteful Coldplay. If the standard rap against them is their blatant non-offensiveness—so calculated it actually becomes offensive—there’s something energizing about their ability to make every song swell into loud guitars hammering out simple riffs that work. “Fix You” is arguably a terrible song, but I bow before a song in which the world’s loudest church organ is just one part of the endless chorus. Alexis Petridis has struggled with this problem in his reviews of their last two albums in almost identical terms: this time, he’s noted their ability to “write songs that carry the listener along regardless of their reservations - indeed, almost despite them.” Last time, he grudgingly admitted that the “songs are mostly beautifully turned.”
Viva La Vida is tasteful scrubbed sound, aside from the gonzo title single, which is all stabbing strings and deep bass. I like it: it doesn’t wait more than a few seconds before hammering you over the head with uplift. The rest seems too cautious by half: what’s with those pseudo-Middle Eastern strings on “Yes,” for example? They stop the song dead; it’s surprising, sure, but it doesn’t mesh. What’s the point of a non-embarrassing Coldplay? If we’re going to do gooey sentiment, better to go all out instead of hedging bets. Petridis was honest enough to admit that the last three album’s songs work despite the fact that they’re undeniably middlebrow; Viva La Vida panders a little to Eno devotees, cleans up the syrupier musical elements, and drops something astoundingly bland into your lap. It’s supposed to be better for you, but it’s not terribly interesting. If I want intelligent, deeply layered anthems, I’ll listen to Doves; but if I want overly obvious sentiment, what am I supposed to do with these shockingly enervated tunes? Nothing on here is a tenth as overly sentimental (or effective) as “The Scientist,” or “Clocks,” or “A Rush Of Blood To The Head,” etc. etc.
More high-school standby material returns to attention: Beck has returned to relevance. It seems pretty clear that the pretty amazing run he had in the ’90s will never be revisited; anyone who needed the maudlin tried/died/cried rhymes of Sea Change to take him seriously as something other than ironic slacker is missing out. That monochromatic bummer was followed up by the grimly workmanlike Guero. It’s become increasingly obvious (to me, anyway) that Beck’s heart is no longer into the genre juxtapositions Odelay! and Midnite Vultures trotted out with dizzying speed, and Guero’s upbeat moments seemed forced and obligatory. 2006’s The Information remains an underrated return to form, fully integrating Beck’s ever-present melancholia (what does he do for fun in his spare time? He records Nick Drake covers) with inventive arrangements and breakdowns, but it’s still basically the same old stuff done with renewed vigor.
Modern Guilt is either a new era or a one-off (probably the latter, if I had to guess). Auteur-producer Danger Mouse’s fingerprints are all over this; fascinating how quickly he’s established a menacing sound big on ghostly instruments that sound like samples even though they’re not (he’s spiritual kin to Portishead in that respect), though I have to say I find his obsessions a bit oppressive. And that’s Modern Guilt in a nutshell: even at just over half-an-hour, it remains Beck’s most original album this side of the millennium, yet pretty much no fun at all. The apocalypse is on his mind, and most specifically global warming: “Gamma Ray” is a pretty unlikely single, grimly encouraging said ray to get to work already. If that’s not explicit enough, try “Chemtrails,” where he watches jets fly by and announces “we’re climbing a hole in the sky.” Things get worse and worse, until finally “Volcano” contemplates jumping into the crater just to feel some warmth.
What makes Modern Guilt a true bummer is its savage focus: unlike Sea Change’s endless dirges, it’s a restless, inventive album that’s always compelling. There’s crazy, spiraling drums that kick off each part of “Chemtrails,” whose dynamic chorus breaks incongruously out of the eerie stillness of an organ. “Replica” sounds like one of Radiohead’s glitchier nightmares, a real drum kit skittering like a computer over broken-down chords repeating themselves ad infinitum. “Gamma Ray” is a surf-rock riff, but Beck’s vocals are deeper and pissier than I’ve ever heard; “Soul Of A Man” is even freakier, with Jack White guitar solos going off over backwards drums that clap to a fake climax to keep time. There’s a wealth of detail here: like Spoon, Beck’s making sure everything’s so pared down that every element assumes extra weight. It’s definitely admirable, but I hope it’s out of his system now; I don’t think I can take another album like this. But the unconverted should definitely check this out: it’s an unexpected late-stage re-invention that does exactly what it wants.
OK, time for some fun. Being the diligent white rap listener that I am, I’m immensely fond of Clipse; Hell Hath No Fury is exactly as good as the hype had it, they put on a ferocious live show, and their punchlines are immaculate. What’s not to love? Now that their beef opponent Lil Wayne has, once again, made a completely unlikely triumph over the American record-buying public, it remains to be seen if Clipse—who’ve been out in the commercial wilderness ever since 2002—can stage a similar comeback. My guess is yes—Rick Rubin gave them a contract worth $1.8 million if all the options are exercised, and I don’t see him being particularly eager to become a rap philanthropist. A key element here is the introduction of new producers into Clipse’s world, and while their albums with the Neptunes are simply perfect—the negative spaces and weird sounds they come up with allow Clipse a great deal of freedom to duck around and establish their own usual patterns—they’re undeniably a bit odd for radio, even by the Neptunes’ standards. While waiting for Till The Casket Drops to come out (it’s apparently already been pushed back once), it’s time for a test-run with more conventional beats.
One option is to release Re-Up Gang albums outside of Rubin’s purvey (Re-Up Gang being their posse—Clipse plus Sandman and Ab-Liva, accomplished but unexciting back-up dudes; their verses keep you going inoffensively while you wait for the return of the Thornton brothers). So Koch Records—an always ambivalently-regarded label I don’t even want to get into here—gets to put out The Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang, a kind of cheapish test-run to see how Clipse perform apart from their long-time partners. Based on what’s here, I see no reason to worry. Lots of this is recycled lines from We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3, which I found kind of enervating and sludgy, but it’s easier to take them in this new context. Much of this is produced by previously unknown quantities Sleepwalkers, whose unfortunate name makes them an easy target. Let’s put it this way: these are, for the most part, rote and unimaginative beats, heavy on tinny keyboards and standard drums. They’re better than, say, the retarded minimalism of G-Unit, which is downright insulting, but they won’t get anyone that excited. But do they give Clipse enough anger and momentum to get your attention? Absolutely.
“Bring It Back” is whatever as a beat, but the smart-ass moment where they yell out “redrum redrum” is gratifying despite its relative predictability. Some folks are annoyed by the whiny girl voice repeating “money, gimme some” over and over on, well, “Money,” but it’s basically a slightly more monotonous version of the harridan women Clipse like to mock so much (and if you don’t believe me, check out the incredibly shrill monologue preceding “Ma, I Don’t Love Her” on Lord Willin’). These beats are generically “aggressive” and sound like a passable party track for a low-budget indie’s party scene, but they do what they’re supposed to: show that there is, in fact, life after the Neptunes. We hope anyway. Freed from the dreary duty of rapping over beats they don’t particularly seem to be inspired by on Vol. 3, this plays like a fine dry run with lots of fun moments: no focused classic, but a perfectly acceptable placeholder. (And it should be noted that the one song with a real producer—“Fast Life”, backed by Scott Storch—more than measures up; the chorus seems deliberately dumbed-down, but the verses are as sharp as ever, and Pusha’s flow still stops and starts in unpredictable ways.) There will be more to say when they finally drop a new album: you get the feeling they’re holding themselves in check with dazzling links of logic (I dig the moment on “Still Got It For Cheap” where they claim the colors of their bling are so vivid it seems to come out of an REM dream state) that link standard, imaginatively expressed boasts. Whether they’ll continue to be rap’s coldest-blooded (and most distanced/conceptual) nihilists remains to be seen.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.