Coldplay are corny. We know it. They know it. Ever since the world first saw Chris Martin running on the beach in the “Yellow” video, Coldplay have been corny. Sometimes, that corniness takes the form of abashed self-deprecation, and sometimes it manifests as over-serious messianic-complex bullshit. Sometimes, it even looks like desperation, as when Coldplay glommed onto both Max Martin and BTS in their successful quest to land a #1 hit last year. At certain points in their history, though, Coldplay have turned that corniness to their advantage, to do things that no non-corny band could’ve ever accomplished. For instance: “Clocks.” A cool band could’ve never made “Clocks,” and that’s why “Clocks” stands as an eternal argument that coolness is overrated.
Let’s talk about “Clocks” for a minute. For my money, “Clocks” is the best song on Coldplay’s sophomore album A Rush Of Blood To The Head, which turns 20 years old today. For my money, “Clocks” is also the best thing that Coldplay have ever done. I say this even though I have no idea what “Clocks” is about. A trouble that can’t be named? A tiger waiting to be tamed? The tides that Chris Martin tried to swim against? Someone shooting an apple off of Chris Martin’s head? Whatever. It’s fine. Doesn’t matter. “Clocks” doesn’t seem to have any specific subject because it’s beyond specificity. It doesn’t even capture any individual feeling. Instead, it captures feeling itself, in all of its messy grandeur.
That tumbling piano? That thrumming bass? The way those drums hit, like a wrecking ball suddenly crashing through your wall? That rush of strings to the head? It’s almost too beautiful to analyze. It’s less of a song, more of a weather system. It’s the purple sky over the mountains at sunrise, so picturesque that it doesn’t seem real. For massive swaths of “Clocks,” Chris Martin just lets that falsetto soar over everything, sad and elated and strong and vulnerable and bittersweet and eternal. When Martin starts singing about home, home, where he wanted to go, his puffy-cloud lyrics somehow escape the bounds of middle-school poetry and tip over into the universal. The whole song sounds like U2 drunk on early-’00s big-room trance. It’s swollen and majestic and embarrassing and so, so pretty. When a song like “Clocks” comes along, there’s no point in resisting, in asking questions. You just have to submit, to let that motherfucker wash over you.
Coldplay were flirting with that kind of transcendence even before A Rush Of Blood To The Head. That “Yellow” video may have been corny, but it was corny in a charming and effective way, much like the song itself. “Yellow” was enough to push Coldplay out of the realm of drippy post-Radiohead British balladeers, the Travises and Starsailors and Feeders of the world, and into orbit. You can chart Coldplay’s ascent from the moment that they released their 2000 debut Parachutes. Just look at where Coldplay sat in the lineups of three Glastonbury festivals. 1999: Before Parachutes comes out, Coldplay are in something called the New Tent — presumably one of those areas that revellers tromp through when they’re looking for a good place to light a bonfire or wave one of those banners. 2000: Parachutes looms, and Coldplay are a third of the way up the bill on the Other Stage, playing before Death In Vegas and Elastica and Wannadies and David Gray. (Meanwhile, Travis are headlining the whole damn thing.) 2002: Coldplay headline the Pyramid Stage, the biggest stage on the biggest music festival in the world. They’re one album into their career, and they have already found something like immortality.
Coldplay weren’t supposed to be at Glastonbury in 2002. They were last-second replacements for the Strokes, who’d bailed on the festival a couple of weeks beforehand. It’s a bit like Pulp filling in for the just-broken-up Stone Roses in 1995, blasting themselves to stardom, but it’s also nothing like that. That big 1995 “Common People” singalong was an unexpected delight, a sign that Pulp had suddenly entered rarefied air. In 2002, Coldplay were already breathing that air. In the UK, Parachutes was a #1 album that went platinum nine times. The Strokes might’ve been the cooler choice, but none of the soggy punters who sang along with “Yellow” seemed to wish that they were hearing “Last Nite” instead.
Two months after Glastonbury, Coldplay came back hard. In interviews, the band has talked about how they almost called it quits after Parachutes, how they doubted that they could top their debut album. They also had 9/11 on the mind; Chris Martin has said that he wrote “Politik,” the opening track from A Rush Of Blood To The Head, on the day that the planes hit. To hear them tell it, lead single “In My Place” was the breakthrough, the moment that the band realized that they could write a bigger and better song. I don’t doubt that Coldplay felt anxiety when working on A Rush Of Blood To The Head, but you can’t hear that anxiety at work on the album. Instead, A Rush Of Blood To The Head stands as one of the most confident rock records of this century. Coldplay had just started to wrap their collective head around the idea that they were important, and they responded by stepping up, by reaching for a sky full of stars.
It’s almost disorienting to hear pillow-soft music with this much swagger. Coldplay’s fragility was a key part of their appeal from the beginning. They’d spent most of Parachutes in folky acoustic-ramble Jeff Buckley disciple mode, bringing the sort of rice-paper vulnerability that turned the band into a homophobic punchline in The 40 Year Old Virgin. That vulnerability is all over A Rush Of Blood To The Head. When Chris Martin’s lyrics even become concrete enough to understand, they’re usually about mooning for some girl, either pre-breakup or post-breakup. His voice is high and quavery — no bluster, all crystalline quiver. But Martin’s melodies are huge, and the band surrounds his voice with booming, textured highlight-reel uplift. “The Scientist”? Jesus Christ. Like the Edge, or like Explosions In The Sky, guitarist Jonny Buckland always understood the power of an immaculately recorded tingle. That tingle, combined with Martin’s keening tenor, turns Rush into something special.
The majesty in A Rush Of Blood To The Head, the confidence in its openness, is probably what made Coldplay every A-list rapper’s favorite rock band for a little while. You can hear it just in the textures of the album — the sparkling cleanliness, the artfully deployed reverb, the way every piano note has just the right amount of sustain. Coldplay made A Rush Of Blood To The Head with Ken Nelson, the same producer who’d recorded Parachutes with them, but the sonic footprint is all different. By the time they made Rush, Coldplay knew that they were making mass-catharsis music, that millions of people would potentially buy this record. They responded accordingly. Their particular brand of operatic serenity has virtually vanished from mainstream rock music in 2022. (This might simply be because “mainstream rock music” itself is an endangered concept.) Twenty years ago, though, Coldplay knew that they had an audience, and they swung for the fences.
Mainstream rock music itself was in a funny place in 2002. The waves of nü metal and post-grunge had mostly died down, and people were convinced that the Strokes and the White Stripes were the next wave of rock-radio kings. But rock radio itself had already lost all sense of identity, so there simply was no new wave of rock-radio kings. The Strokes and the White Stripes did get radio play in the US, and those same stations were also playing Coldplay and a whole lot of other random shit. In a typical half-hour of alt-rock radio, you might hear Coldplay next to Jimmy Eat World and Godsmack and Audioslave and Good Charlotte and the Hives. Nothing made sense. A few weeks after Coldplay released A Rush Of Blood To The Head, I saw them headline a radio-station Christmas show. The rest of the bill: New Found Glory, Box Car Racer, Zwan, Queens Of The Stone Age, the Vines, and James Brown. James Brown was backed by the Pietasters. Weird times.
The mere fact that Coldplay were headlining that show says something. In this fractious landscape, Coldplay were the great unifiers. They might not have specifically appealed to fans of New Found Glory or Queens Of The Stone Age or any other bands on that bill, but people tended to like them enough. People knew that Coldplay were corny, but that corniness hadn’t yet overwhelmed the florid beauty of the music they were making. Hugely popular British bands have a famously hard time in America, but that was never a problem for Coldplay. A Rush Of Blood To The Head went quadruple platinum over here — twice what Parachutes had sold. Coldplay graduated from alt-rock stations to adult contemporary ones. American record-buyers discovered similarly sensitive British souls like Dido and David Gray. Soon enough, Coldplay were touring American arenas on their own, without a radio station package’s worth of random-ass bands supporting them. (When I saw Coldplay at Madison Square Garden a few years later, their opener was Rilo Kiley, and nobody in the crowd cared about them. That building was full of straight-up Coldplay fans.)
Americans responded to Coldplay for a reason. For me, A Rush Of Blood To The Head is that band’s towering achievement, the moment when their glossy, sensitive arms-wide uplift was pumping on all cylinders. A Rush Of Blood To The Head isn’t a masterpiece. It’s mushy and indistinct and front-loaded, and it gets boring by the end. But the album is the sound of a band who’s been catapulted to fame and who understands why they’ve been catapulted to fame, what people like about their music. They recognized their foundation, and they built on it. Their sound was already big and pretty, and they made it bigger and prettier. We can sit here and snark about Coldplay all day, and they’ve given us plenty of ammunition over the years, but some of those melodies continue to kick me in the soul.
Earlier this year, my dad died after a long battle with Parkinson’s. I had a complicated relationship with the man, and I haven’t really known how to feel since he’s been gone. Today, the day I’m writing this piece, would’ve been my dad’s birthday. I’ve been feeling weird and raw all day, and I haven’t really taken time to process any of it. My dad wasn’t a Coldplay fan or anything; I can probably safely assume that he had no idea who they were. This isn’t some big confession of emotional resonance. But writing this piece today has me listening to “Clocks” over and over. That song has given me some level of comfort, and I’m grateful. Coldplay are corny, but in the moments when you’re feeling weird and raw, they will be there for you. They will tell you that it’s OK, and they will demand nothing of you. Maybe that’s why they were so huge in 2002. Maybe that’s why they’re still so huge now.