Coldplay didn't seem destined for bigness. Their 2000 debut, Parachutes, was full of drizzly but pretty rock ballads that were almost memorable enough to prevent American listeners from confusing the band with Travis. Of course, that album also included a huge, soaring song called "Yellow," which may well be inspiring a drunken singalong in your local bar as you read this.
"Yellow" was a smash, but what came next was even smashier. In 2002, Coldplay released A Rush of Blood to the Head, which perfectly captured the heady feeling of a small band acting big. The band's sad-sack frontman, Chris Martin, transformed himself with so much swagger and so many hooks that even 50 Cent had to pay tribute, turning Martin's ambivalent lyric into a greasy boast: "God gave me style, God gave me grace." The rest of the band supplied Martin with propulsive rhythms, giving their newly pushy leader something to pull against, and the songs were even better; the band had mastered the art of writing graceful ballads that were both deceptively simple and fiendishly hard to dislodge from the human brain.
Since then, Martin has become a worldwide rock star, for better and for worse. He has a wife named Gwyneth and a baby named Apple, who just turned one, and who probably already knows what "paparazzi" means. On the other hand, Martin's newfound notoriety has meant more exposure for his favorite causes, such as fair trade. Compared to all the hubbub about Chris Martin the celebrity, his band's return to the American pop charts was a bit of a letdown. Coldplay began the campaign for X&Y with "Speed of Sound," an appealing but not thrilling song (it sounds a bit like Rush of Blood's "Clocks" but without the swagger). Whereas Rush of Blood was a nervy bid for bigness, X&Y is something less exciting. It's the serious sound of Martin trying to sing songs that match his stature. It's the sound of a blown-up band trying not to deflate.
Like the previous one, this album starts in outer space. Last time, there were those roiling piano chords of "Politik" and an audacious opening: "Look at Earth from outer space/Everyone must find a place." This time there's an atmospheric hum, and Martin murmurs, "The future's for discoverin'/The space in which we're travelin'." Drummer Will Champion enters with a tense rhythm, Guy Berryman adds one of those hurtling- forward bass lines, and Jonny Buckland doubles it with a skinny guitar line — there's plenty to listen to, but not a lot to love. Luckily, this album contains its share of lovely ballads that sound, well, Coldplay-ish: Thanks to Keane and other imitators, Coldplay's name has become an adjective. One of the best is "Fix You," an unabashedly sentimental song where Martin delivers words of encouragement in a gentle falsetto. "Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you," he sings, proving once more that no band can deliver a stately rock ballad like this one. And although "Twisted Logic" may be an obvious Radiohead rip-off (with a title that sounds alarmingly Fred Durst-ish), the members find ways to build suspense while progressing toward that inevitable crashing climax.
Still, a surprising number of songs here just never take flight, from "The Hardest Part" (which actually gets less catchy as it goes along) to "A Message," which might actually be too Coldplay-ish: "My song is love," Martin announces, and you might find yourself wishing it weren't. Martin has talked about how hard he worked on this album, and it shows: Nothing on it sounds easy — maybe 50 Cent made off with a little bit of his style and grace. X&Y does find ways to reward persistent listeners, especially those who make it all the way past the end to the bonus track, "Till Kingdom Come," which is the most casual thing on the album (it starts with Martin counting) and maybe the best. "I don't know which way I'm going/I don't know which way I've come," he sings, accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar, and after what's come before, it's an unexpected delight to hear him sound so small again.