Raise your hand if you remember when Coldplay were the new Travis. Before the U2-for-millennials arena rock, the Grey’s Anatomy tearjerker power ballads, the old-timey military fatigues, the full-fledged mainstream pop immersion, the exceedingly grand and often facepalm-worthy gestures, the Hollywood marriage and “conscious uncoupling,” the superstar rappers squabbling over who asked for a guest feature first — before Coldplay became the Coldplay we know today — they were part of a wave of edgeless English blokes imagining what might’ve happened if Thom Yorke had never discovered Warp Records and instead decided to just keep remaking “High And Dry.” This was the era of Starsailor and Stereophonics and Doves and Elbow and Turin Brakes and Badly Drawn Boy, a post-Britpop scene in which Coldplay were firmly entrenched. And then Chris Martin went walking down the beach, Coldplay got bigger than the rest of those “stool rock” acts combined, and the band that made Parachutes ceased to exist.
It was good while it lasted. Not that I’d disparage what came after, at least not most of it. I love Viva La Vida and Everyday Life and “The Scientist” and “Magic” and, yes, even “Fix You.” Despite some obvious missteps and a meek-yet-painfully-extra disposition that led some listeners to dismiss them as insufferable sops, I tend to believe Coldplay are underrated on the whole. But their debut album, released 20 years ago today, has a homespun charm the band has never since managed.
Coldplay couldn’t have made another album as pastoral as Parachutes if they’d tried. Martin, now one of the most famous people in the world, would have to return to the headspace of the unassuming Exeter kid fresh out of uni, steeped in quarter-life melancholy yet optimistic enough to bookend his album with assertions that “we live in a beautiful world” and “everything’s not lost.” Bandmates Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman, and Will Champion — with whom Martin had linked up while studying ancient Greek and Latin at University College London, first under godawful names like Pectoralz and Starfish — would have to unlearn everything they know about radio-friendly sparkle and stadium-sized bombast. Ironically given its title, there’s a down-to-earth quality to the band’s first album. It sounds like the work of regular people, like four guys excited to rock the local pub even as they nurse more grandiose ambitions.
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” is as appropriate a Radiohead reference point as anything on The Bends. Parachutes sounds like both a drive through the English countryside and a walk home from the bar, contemplative and personal, metropolitan college kids’ idea of casual rustic splendor. Acoustic guitars and piano abound, often ambling ahead at easygoing tempos, occasionally shot heavenward by one of Buckland’s electric riffs. The album’s baseline is slow jams like “Sparks” and “We Never Change,” deep moods fit for breakups and budding crushes alike. Even some of the hardest rocking songs, like the paranoid, 007-inspired “Spies” and the “Hey Jude”-style sing-along finale “Everything’s Not Lost,” descend into shadows at times. “High Speed” is a misleading title for a track on which waves of guitar drift by like tumbleweeds, and even the brisk opening volley “Don’t Panic” communicates the tender intimacy of Nick Drake.
Despite the sighing coffeeshop feel, Coldplay had already figured out how to go big. With a voice like Martin’s, so richly textured and capable of scaling such great heights, how could they not? Reviewers from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone picked up traces of Dave Matthews’ growl (you can hear it on the interlude “Parachutes,” a close cousin to DMB’s “Satellite”) and Jeff Buckley’s wail (you can’t miss it on “Shiver,” which could almost slide onto the Grace tracklist without anyone noticing). Martin was mostly serving up big-picture platitudes and banal personal drama, the sort of things that, speaking from personal experience, strike a young songwriter as profound when they’ve never had to worry about poverty, sexism, racism, et al. The man sings about living in a bubble more than once here. Yet his voice is a force of nature that can imbue the most benign lyrics with devastating power, so Coldplay were well-equipped to ramp up the drama when they so chose.
They did so at the core of Parachutes, on a pair of songs that established their anthem-slinger bona fides. On “Yellow,” the single that broke them in America, they spun magic out of little more than a simple acoustic chord progression, some romantic nonsense about the stars, and Buckland’s majestic string bends. It is a blank canvas on which to project whatever sentimental vibes you wish, as vast and glittering as the nighttime sky. Less expansive but even more powerful is “Trouble,” a bleary piano ballad about longing to soar so high again but being too weighed down by regret. “Oh, I never meant to cause you trouble!” Martin cries out, his voice coursing with genuine ache. “Oh, I never meant to do you wrong!” Accented by Martin’s wistful piano riff, Buckland’s weeping guitar, and Berryman’s subtly masterful bass notes, it all coalesced into one of history’s great breakup songs.
Perhaps at some point these past two decades you’ve listened back on “Trouble” and felt like Martin was singing to you, apologizing for whatever Coldplay did to sour you. “We never change, do we?” he sang near the end of Parachutes, a notion he and his bandmates would prove wrong almost immediately. The band many of us fell in love with through this album has morphed several times over since the year 2000, winning over millions of newcomers in the process, carving out a polarizing reputation. I don’t personally begrudge those changes, but I do treasure the memory of that fleeting moment when Coldplay were just one of a legion of young British rock bands stretching for the heavens, doing their damndest to shine for you.