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By Michael E. Miller
Coldplay is a band you carry like an umbrella through the inclement weather of the soul, which may be why lead singer Chris Martin spent Coldplay's first video (for a song called "Yellow") on a gray beach in a rain jacket, singing high and low of the stars that shine and the blood he bleeds for love.
The lads were barely a year out of University College of London when the CD went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, earning them a soft landing in the front yard of popular culture where the Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences waited to greet them in 2002 with a Grammy for best alternative album. And the media -- titillated by the attendance of luminaries like Elijah Wood, Oasis, and Gwyneth Paltrow at Coldplay shows -- waited in the bushes for the followup.
A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay's latest release, is edgier than Parachutes, the guitar heavier and the bass drum a bit more assertive. To what does Martin ascribe the shift? For one thing, he says, there was artistic support from Echo & the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch during the recording. Most important, though, was the band's attitude.
"Confidence, really," the singer tells New Timesover the phone. "Confidence in the face of fear. The whole success of Parachutes made us think, 'Well, that was great, but we need[ed] to do something where we weren't holding back.' At the same time, we were petrified about releasing the second album. It's hard to pretend that you don't give a shit about what anyone else thinks, but we try to pretend as much as possible."
Not that hearing what others think is a bad thing.
"Press is the Achilles' heel of success," Martin explains further. "It's the one thing that stops you from getting an enormous ego."
It can also interrupt your vacation. On hiatus somewhere Down Under, Martin speaks with a subdued, dewy calm, and he is apologetic when he feels he's said something out of turn or potentially offensive.
"All press is bollocks and propaganda," he complains. "I'm sorry. I'm not trying to demean you or what you do. But we have stuff written about us that's not true, both positive and negative."
Yet, Martin concedes, the band appreciates the attention. Now that Coldplay has earned its laurels, the band still sounds eager to be heard. Buckland, Champion, and Berryman play with young, urgent energy that is balanced by mature instrumental poise, making the nonvocal moments of their albums as beautiful and emotive as the lyrical ones. That's one of Coldplay's finest qualities -- the ability to make the bridge as expressive as the verse.
Martin plays the piano tucked into himself. But when he sings, it sounds as if he's laying down his legacy as a musician who, he recognizes, will probably fall out of fame at some point in the future. As if he's trying to send his voice out to the farthest reaches of the universe, a place he hints at in the opening of "Politik," the first track on A Rush of Blood to the Head: "Look at Earth from outer space/Everyone must find a place/Give time and give me space/Give me real/Don't give me fake."
As the song revs up on pistons of guitar and drums, Coldplay lunges headlong into the disillusions of life on a political planet -- and in the process picking up another two Grammy nominations for 2003: best alternative music album for Rush of Bloodand best rock performance by a duo or group with a vocal for "In My Place."
"Sometimes I think, 'I'm peaking at 25. What am I going to do for the next 40 years?'" wonders the polite young man from Devon, England, who is trying very, very hard to do the right thing by his celebrity. Thus far the band has refused to allow its music to be used in advertisements or film soundtracks. Also, in the last year the band has become one of the biggest names to champion fair trade in the global market.
While recording A Rush of Blood, Martin received a letter from Oxfam, a multinational organization dedicated to making trade fair for farmers in lesser-developed countries, asking the band for help. Coldplay dedicated a page of the album's liner notes to the fair trade "politik" -- including a list of Websites relevant to the campaign as well as a small manifesto: "For countries to develop or even survive they need to be able to trade fairly. At the moment poorer countries are strangled by international trade laws and ruthless Western businesses, keeping millions trapped in poverty and widening the gap between rich and poor."
To talk about Oxfam is to get Chris Martin going. And to get him to perform at benefit concerts. To show up at the MTV Europe awards in a "Make Trade Fair" T-shirt. It's even gotten him to Haiti, where Martin met with farmers whose chance at financial survival has been undermined by fluctuations in the world coffee market and cheap U.S. rice imports.