Coldplay are currently holed up in a studio in northern London, trying to hammer out the details for their still-untitled fourth album, due out in May. On a white board, three band members have posted radically different proposed track listings for the album. Chris Martin has withheld his, hoping to lobby his colleagues a little while longer. “I heard a Bono quote once that said ‘Bands shouldn’t break up over money, they should break up over track listing,’ ” he says. “Nothing could be more pertinent at this point.”
To record their fourth album, the band hired legendary producer Brian Eno and pointedly tried to remove all outside influences. “We felt like the first three albums were a trilogy, and we finished that,” says guitarist Johnny Buckland. “So we wanted to do something different.” The band let Rolling Stone hear the songs they’re working on, and most are refreshingly, bracingly different from Coldplay hits like “Clocks” and “Speed of Sound.”
Several tracks are considerably rougher around the edges, with distorted guitars and more prominent percussion. The lyrics are darker, dealing with recurring themes of death and loneliness. And on several songs, Martin extends his vocal palette considerably beyond the falsetto that has largely defined him, exhibiting a lower, sexier mode that feels more personal and real. “Whether or not it’s good, we certainly started to use more colors,” says Martin. “It’s impossible to please everybody, and it took us a while to learn that. It’s just the freedom to say, ‘Everyone might not like this. We’re into it at the moment, so let’s just get it done.’ ”
The band explored in a variety of sonic directions, something they attribute to Eno’s encouragement. “He’s just not judgmental, it’s very refreshing,” says Martin. Buckland adds, “It wasn’t so much that he brings like a sound or something to it. He brings lots of ideas about everything, even down to like how we structured our day.” His suggestion? “Take lots of breaks.”
Of course, the band is still hammering away at that track listing, but here’s a guide to several of the songs likely to end up on the album:
“Violet Hill”: One of the strongest of the new songs, the band is considering giving it away as a special promotion in coming weeks and then leaving it off the album. Opening with a jagged distorted guitar riff, the song announces a new template: The stalking, bluesy beat fits nicely with Martin’s earthy vocals and plaintive lyrics: “If you love me, won’t you let me know?”
“42”: The fact that the band is considering this song as the album’s first real single underlines how far they’re willing to a stray from their formula: It’s an elaborate three-part piece, with swirling pianos, strings and beat loops that build to an uptempo climax, with some seriously stoner lyrics: “Those who are dead are not dead/They’re just living in my head.”
“Yes”: Here, Martin’s vocals take center stage like never before: Sounding more aggressive and strong than ever, they sit on top of an irresistible North African string-and-tablas arrangement and ache more convincingly than all the lilting falsetto in the world: “If you’d only, if you’d only say ‘Yes’/I’m just so tired of this loneliness.” It’s the band’s freshest song since “Parachutes.”
“Death and All His Friends”: A straight-up rock tune with a riff that sounds ripped from the Doobie Brothers, piano, and, in the last section, flute.
“Cemetaries of London”: Notice the thematic pattern emerging from the title and lyrics? This one, with an electro loop and hand claps, doesn’t sound as glum as its title portends.
“Life in Technicolor”: Acoustic-guitar driven and jangly, this is one of the few tracks that seems built from the Coldplay template of songs like “Don’t Panic,” only a bit more, well, panicked: “Baby it’s a violent world,” Martin sings.
“Chinese Sleep Chant”: Opening with a jagged guitar riff, the song quickly settles into a propulsive dance-track loop with low-mixed, angelic vocals.
“Strawberry Swing”: This is one of several potential album cuts with Afro-pop and high-life influences: Here, distortion-free finger-picked guitars which sound straight out of Mali mix with a heavy bassline and psychedelic synths. “My Mum comes from Zimbabwe, so I spent a lot of time there,” says Martin. “I used to work in a studio where people played that.”
“Reign of Love”: A lovely layered composition of piano, bass and organ that backs fairytale lyrics.