It’s my birthday today. And I have spent the first hour of the day listening to Coldplay. I discovered the band in college and enjoyed their melodies and vocals.
But there was just something poetic about their songwriting that just got to me. Hours were spent looking up the meanings to their lyrics. This was before Genius.com, so my thanks go to the guys at Songfacts.com. (That was the website that gave me a bit of the backstory to Drops of Jupiter, a song so excellently written I am yet to get over the Grammys not giving it Song of the Year.)
At the time, enjoying rock music was how you proved you were not just cool but intelligent. Drums were good but those guitars, the pianos and those lyrics with meanings that were just out of reach. And yet, listening to “Talk”, “Speed of Sound”, “In My Place”, “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” and “The Hardest Part” this morning, it seems to me that on those songs, Coldplay was a band making inspirational and motivational music. Sometimes the lines seem engineered to make you grab life by the balls; other times, the lines seem to tell you you are not alone in having dark thoughts and darker feelings.
This isn’t an especial insight. It might not even be true. I think it merely illustrates a point made by writers, academics, culture critics, and anybody who thinks about art long enough, that the meaning of some of the best art changes along with the people who enjoy them.
So it is my birthday and invariably, my thoughts are in the key of reflection. And so my mind is highlighting parts of Coldplay’s songs that I never gave much thought to as a kid learning how to write well while studying for a degree in pharmacy. Allow me share some of them:
“Everything I do, it’s just comes undone” — The Hardest Part
“Every chance that you get is a chance you seize” — Speed of Sound
“How long must you wait for it? How long must you pay for it?” — In My Place
“When you work it out, I’m worse than you” — God Put A Smile Upon Your Face
“Oh brother…I’m so scared about the future, and I wanna talk to you” — Talk
There are others — “Curse missed opportunities” from Clocks — but you get the idea.
Everything is worse and every song with sad chords seem fraught with meaning during a lockdown, so even the line “Come back and sing to me” from In My Place struck me hard. (I admit that that part of the song has always made me want to sing along.) Clearly, the effect is tripled by the soulful melancholy of Chris Martin’s voice and the bands instrumentation, notably on its second and third albums, Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y. I hold onto the belief that Amsterdam, from the former, is the best last song to appear on any album.
How had I gotten into this exploration of early Coldplay? Twitter. I had seen the video of the kid rescued from a violent life (and, possibly, a violent death) by Pastor Tony Rapu, and while I admired the transformation of a person’s life, the video had employed the instrumental of God Put A Smile Upon Your Face as soundtrack.
It kept playing in my head until I got on YouTube and for the first time in many years, saw the video again. Of course, it brought up memories from those years of college and I clicked on more songs from that era. As I said, reflection is the theme of this year’s birthday perhaps because the option of heading out to a bar for drinks with friends by evening has been destroyed.
There was something else: I had read the story of a suicide hours before on Twitter. A young man taking his life is a tragedy that, I think, brings up several questions, the central one being, would I do the same in his position?
The deceased had gotten humiliated by the police and fell into a heavy debt as a result of his arrest. It appears he couldn’t get over the experience and saw no way to pay the debt. But your answer to the question of whether you would do the same is tangential to the tragedy. A murder might be unique; a suicide feels universal. You need only you to do it. Therefore, the tragedy feels close enough to render the central question irrelevant. “I am involved in mankind,” as John Donne noted, “and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Back at the university, I was used to saying sad songs were beautiful, so maybe those lines from Coldplay were merely waiting for me to catch up to their melancholy, but that tragic story played a part in the highlighting of those lines I have put up above. Plus, the inevitability of passing time. After a certain age, you have to wonder why humans celebrate birthdays. Is the vanity of this day that is devoted to you really more consequential than the fact that you have moved closer to certain death?
Yeah, it seems the down-in-the-doldrums identification I observed in Coldplay this morning is stronger than the motivation. No matter though. The album’s last line is this:
“Stood on the edge, tied to the noose
You came along and you cut me loose”
If we ever get to that point, isn’t this what we might all want? For someone to care enough to cut us loose before the irrevocable finality of a suicide. I’ll have to hope so.
“Open up your eyes,” as Coldplay says on ‘Politik’. Wish me a happy birthday.