Coldplay: the discreet return of the biggest band in the world
The British stadium-rock ensemble quietly release a new single
Without fuss or fanfare, Coldplay have quietly released a new track, Magic, and announced a new album, Ghost Stories.
A gentle, understated ballad with no accompanying video, it represents a very discreet return for such a big band, but by the summer, I suspect, Coldplay will be inescapable.
Coldplay’s sixth album will arrive on May 19 (via Parlophone Records). Fans who pre-order Ghost Stories will receive an instant download of the new single (which can be streamed here). It is a little gem of a pop song, riding gently on a deep rolling bass and tingling guitar shimmer, with Chris Martin crooning softly about magic and love, relying on qualities of fragility and sincerity to keep triteness at bay.
It follows the even more subtle release last week of a single track, Midnight, an ambient, autotuned mood piece accompanied by a simple but atmospheric night vision video. With both of these taster releases lacking the epic grandeur of previous hits, the implication is that arguably the biggest rock band of the 21st century (certainly in terms of hit singles, successive multi-million-selling albums and sustained worldwide appeal) are in a restrained, introspective mood. Or maybe they are just building up slowly. An internet broadcast live appearance opening the iTunes festival at SXSW in Texas on March 11 will reveal more.
A softly, softly approach might be considered unusual in the context of anthemic stadium rock, yet it is perfectly judged for this moment in the music business. More than that, the sound strikes me as just right in a world that seems to have turned its back on guitars.
Despite the assertion of Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys at The Brits that “rock and roll will never die”, loud, attacking guitar music has been conspicuously absent from the singles charts for years now. And in a vicious commercial circle, what doesn’t sell doesn’t get access to popular radio, which is still considered the most important factor when it comes to hit-making.
Coldplay may look like a rock band, perform like a rock band, and have the kind of visionary scale and purposeful pride of a great rock band, but their keyboard-led sound and Chris Martin’s classic songwriting instincts have allowed them to stay in tune with shifts towards a more electronic approach favoured by the digital pop generation. There’s certainly nothing in Coldplay’s comeback to scare radio programmers. Yet Coldplay haven’t gone directly to radio. For now, they are holding back, letting social networks do the work.
It is interesting to compare and contrast their approach with their heroes U2, who have been gearing up for their own return. Bono has made comments about both his nervousness and U2’s eagerness to re-establish their status as the world’s greatest rock band, the implication being that there is a lot at stake here, continued relevance or a slide into retro nostalgia.
After a long absence (U2 last released an album in 2009, Coldplay in 2011) the Irish band emerged with a track, Invisible, previewed during the US Super Bowl for maximum impact, and given away as a free charity-based download, with a brash, triumphalist live video. Produced by Danger Mouse, the song has an electronic pulse that attempts to realign U2 with the new pop sensibility. And yet everything about it seems big, forceful and, consequently, oddly old-fashioned compared with Coldplay’s self-confident mysteriousness.
It is perhaps unfair to characterise this as a battle of the bands, Coldplay versus U2, for surely there is room for more than one great stadium-rock ensemble at a time.
But it may be a battle for the soul of rock. When it comes to bragging rights about size and popularity, will Coldplay’s subtle approach see off the old-school drama of U2? If rock is not dead, it may be changing beyond recognition.