I’ll never forget the day back in 1999, when the snobbiest record store clerk I’ve ever known, the guy who introduced me to both Scott Walker and The Left Banke, wouldn’t let me leave his shop until I heard “the best British single of the decade.” The song was “Yellow” and the band was the then-unknown Coldplay. When their first album finally came out in the States, I remember thinking that nothing else approached the power of that song, that they were probably just another flash in the pan, albeit a pleasant one.

Here we are twelve years later and Coldplay is about to release its fifth album – they’ve gained legions of fans, and, Newton’s third law of indie-motion being what it is, lost more than a few record store clerks along the way (not that there are many left). The band is alternately hailed as the righteous heirs to the U2 stadium-rock throne and castigated as the epitome of emasculated bedwetter muzak, AKA everything that is wrong and oh-so-white in rock these days. Rolling Stone labeled lead singer Chris Martin “the Jesus of Uncool” in their 2008 cover feature (to the right), and another writer described them as “music for people who don’t like music,” a ridiculously defeatist, eat-your-own-hipster statement if ever there was one – but hey, you can’t fight (Portland) city hall.

I’m a fan and not a closeted one. At least not anymore. Chris Martin writes undeniably moving pop(-ulist) songs, and that’s a good thing. Anthems are notoriously hard to pull off without sloganeering, i.e. losing their heart, which, for the most part, his don’t. In fact, you have to be pretty numb/cynical to dismiss the grandeur of “Fix You” or “Yellow.” I find their earnestness endearing rather than maudlin or self-pitying, the beautiful simplicity of Jonny Buckland’s riffs to be refreshing rather than pandering. Sure, they’re not the greatest band of all time; one can see where the charges of limpness or obviousness might come from – who couldn’t? – but, by and large, I chalk most of the anti-Coldplay sentiment up to the ever-shifting ‘should’s of taste. They would only be “insufferable” if they were trying to be something other than what they are – or if they started repeating themselves (as they sort of did on X&Y).

While Coldplay sound nothing like U2 – they certainly can’t be accused of not having their own sound – they do have at least two important traits in common. The golden goose of course being Martin’s voice, which has a warmth similar to Bono’s, the sort of connective juice that A&R men would give their first child to replicate. But second, and more germane to Mbird, is the unabashed vertical orientation of their songs. The uplift isn’t a mistake, in other words; Martin clearly has religious blood running through his veins. It was there in “Everything’s Not Lost” on Parachutes, it came through loud and clear in “Green Eyes” and “Amsterdam” from A Rush of Blood to the Head, it reached a fever pitch in “A Message” and “Til Kingdom Come” off X&Y. And then Viva La Vida embraced Christian imagery from start to finish, getting away with it via some well-placed historical flourishes. Which is not to say Martin was proselytizing, not remotely – thank God – at times he’s pretty ambivalent in fact. But the orientation of the lyrics is upward, outward, transcendent, etc. God or Gwyneth, it’s never quite clear who he’s singing about, nor should it be. He gives the listener space to insert meaning of their own, which is a big part of what makes his songs work. Or maybe it’s just that Gwyneth is God…

This was all confirmed a few years ago when I met a guy who’d been Martin’s small group leader at a Christian summer camp in England. Then, in the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, he came clean about his Evangelical Anglican upbringing:

You grew up in a rural part of southwest England, in a pretty religious environment. How did that affect you?

I grew up with the prospect of heaven and hell looming ever large. What I grew up with was, if you even think about boobs, you’re going to hell. It was drilled in: These things are wrong. It was black and white, the way it still is for millions of right-wing Christians in the middle of America. I spent a year thinking I would be punished if I sang “Sympathy for the Devil.”

What was the first music you responded to?

Probably Bad, by Michael Jackson, and “Take on Me” by A-ha. We’d always be in church, so the thing I heard most was hymns. That’s probably where all the life-and-death stuff in our music comes from.

A few years earlier he had copped to the church influence:

“A Message” is taken from a hymn we used to sing called “My Song Is Love Unknown,” and we’d say “kingdom come” every week in the Lord’s Prayer. One of the great things about being forced to go to church services is that we’d sing all these big songs. That’s partly why I’m obsessed with getting everyone to sing along at our shows. It makes me feel like I’m a part of something.

In other words, the ambition of their music – the thematic and sonic largeness that some find aggravating and others inspiring – is not flowing from a place of self-aggrandizement, at least not exclusively. They come by it honestly. This is extraordinarily rare and should not be taken lightly, or held against them. Whatever unhelpful fire and brimstone Martin has in his background, if a Gospel hymn (to the core!) like “My Song Is Love Unknown” stuck, not only was everything, um, not lost, this may even be that odd case where the church met its call. So I’m excited about their new record – “Christmas Lights” was one hell of a holiday track, and this month’s Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall EP, despite the c’mon-guys title, is top-notch – and will continue to preach the Gospel of Uncool to those who’ve been exhausted/crushed by the Law of Cool. Of course, nobody said it was easy…

Ten Favorite Non-Album Coldplay Tracks

  1. Life in Technicolor II
  2. Christmas Lights
  3. Things I Don’t Understand
  4. How You See The World, pt 2
  5. Gravity – Embrace version
  6. Luhna
  7. The World Turned Upside Down
  8. Dry Your Eyes – The Streets w. Chris Martin
  9. Crest of Waves
  10. Poor Me