The dramatization of the old Manchester indie rock and rave scene in ”24 Hour Party People” is an occasionally enlightening slice of alt-rock nostalgia. It also offers a few educational lessons on England’s newest hitmakers. Back then, as the movie demonstrates, the throbbing, intense sonics of the bands mattered. But so did the personalities, be they Joy Division’s pale-rider frontman, Ian Curtis, or Happy Mondays’ own 24-hour party animal, Shaun Ryder. They may have been ”new wave,” or whatever phrase we used at the time, but they were also rock stars in the old-fashioned, attention-getting sense.
Manchester’s days as a hugely influential music community may be over, but guitar-wielding U.K. bands aren’t; in the last few years, one boat after another loaded with musicians has docked on our shores. But as striking as some of that music has been, from the ingenious quirks of Clinic to the six-string symphonics of Doves, you’d be hard-pressed to name a single band member or picture one of their faces. Call it Oasis Syndrome: Act like an overbearing, entitled pop star, and you risk alienating as many people as you attract, so best to keep a low profile. The current, post-Oasis bands, taking a cue from the Gallagher brothers’ ascent and crash, seem to purposefully refrain from putting themselves out there. They’d much prefer to hide behind waves of enveloping sound, thank you very much, as if the idea of rock conquering all were just a distant, baffling memory.
Coldplay appeared to be part of this trend when ”Parachutes” arrived two years back. Sober, mildly rocking university types with a singer who was a sucker for his own falsetto, they were immediately labeled Radiohead Lite, and with good reason. But didn’t their ”Yellow” and ”Trouble” age better than most of Radiohead’s meandering ”Amnesiac”? Wasn’t Coldplay’s lead singer, Chris Martin, in some ways a cut above his peers in the charisma department, a sort of rock Rupert Everett? And could Coldplay actually have more to offer than some of their competitors?
The answer to all three questions is yes, and the proof lies in A Rush of Blood to the Head. Second albums are problematic, never more so than when their predecessors are sleeper sensations. But as sophomore discs go, ”A Rush of Blood” is strikingly wonderful, if not immediately striking. If one were to choose a ”Parachutes” track as a starting point, it wouldn’t be the blaring riff from ”Yellow” but the mel-ancholic vibe of ”Trouble.” The songs are built on gentle, stately pianos and elementary guitar patterns. Even when tempos accelerate, as in the tribal stomp of ”Politik,” a dewy-eyed appeal to some higher power to save us, the music remains restrained and mournful.
And for once, there’s nothing wrong with that. Displaying a cohesion rarely heard in albums these days, ”A Rush of Blood” bobs from one majestic little high to another. Songs like ”In My Place” and ”Warning Sign” marry lyrics imbued with deep regret and mistakes (”…You were an island / And I passed you by” in the touching latter song) with lyrical melodies and guitar hooks that twinkle and sparkle. (Momentary sunniness is provided by the fairly jaunty ”Green Eyes,” about a relationship that actually seems to have stuck.) At a time when so many bands, Brit or American, are intent on cramming as many genres as possible into each song, it’s a relief to hear music that revels in the joys of a simple, graceful melody. The overall effect is tuneful and hypnotic — ambitious, but in the sneakiest, quietest way.
Using his falsetto to sublime effect, Martin never overdoes it or turns cloying, an accomplishment in itself. Much like ”Parachutes,” the new album still has plenty of outside reference points: ”Clocks” has a rushing-waterfall piano straight off a Moby album, while ”A Whisper” delves into a space-rock artiness reminiscent of a ’60s hippie-flick soundtrack. But Coldplay manage to pull off an even grander gambit: In their hands, the new low-profile Brit rock actually has a profile.