Kids are just like parents. They look for the light, but don’t ignore the dark.
“Isn’t this song depressing, dad?” said my ten-year-old son as I sang him Coldplay’s new release “Everyday Life” at bedtime.
“No, not at all,” I whispered. “It helps us realize we’re not alone.” I kept singing, “Everyone hurts, everyone cries. Everyone sees the color in each other’s eyes.”
He stayed quiet. And then came the refrain: “Got to keep dancing when the lights go out.” A few soft hmm’s let me know he was getting the point. I followed with these words from “Arabesque,” also in the new album: “I could be you, you could be me, two raindrops in the same sea.” I want my boy to see that connection comes from pain.
And there’s plenty of pain to go around. Enough to make the cheeriest among us cynical. Wars displace populations, refugees spill across borders, religious minorities face persecution around the world, the environment groans under increasing pressure, contention and corruption sully world politics, and we have to be careful what we say for fear of ostracism. Modern life is tinged with apocalyptic tones and desperation. A soft nihilism pervades our public discontent. They don’t call this the age of anxiety for nothing. To survive our adversarial culture, one must resort to sarcasm and righteous rage. Or, as increasing numbers do, simply sink into oneself and avoid contact with others.
But Coldplay alchemizes this pain into hope. They affirm life with all its struggles.
The British band has been around for some 20 years now. Their eighth studio album was released in November, and it couldn’t come at a better time. “Music,” the song “Arabesque” says, “is the weapon of the future.” Coldplay gives us a vision of everyday life in which people acknowledge each other’s hurt, individuals dissolve as drops into the same sea, and we all sing a mournful, joyful hallelujah together.
Coldplay looks like the college mates you always wanted. Normal guys you would want to coach your kids in soccer. Polite gents who open the door for your grandma. Can there be a nicer fellow than guitarist Johnny Buckland, a cuter chap than bassist Guy Berryman, a more earnest bloke than Will Champion? And the gap-toothed smile of lead singer Chris Martin tells you he’s your best friend. But these down-to-earth blokes create some of the deepest philosophy of hope and human togetherness in the music industry today.
Coldplay has always been a merry bunch but hidden between the soaring anthems are songs of wrenching loneliness and brooding alienation. The lyrics reveal a keen understanding of the impulses between acceptance and rejection, connection and isolation, affirmation and nihilism. Beneath that British reserve (perhaps spurred by it), a deep ache stirs. The band came into their own during the years just before and after the attacks of September 11 and the Iraq War. Those angsty days produced angsty music. A haunting song called “For You” hums like a parent encouraging her child to rise from universal loneliness: “If you're lost and feel alone/Circumnavigate the globe/All you ever have to hope/For two.” And the song “Midnight” cries like a prayer from the wilderness: “In the darkness before the dawn/In the swirling of this storm/When I'm rolling with the punches and hope is gone/Leave a light, a light on.”
These songs strike a chord with sensitive souls and wink acknowledgment to countless kindred spirits. But in the course of the past few albums, Coldplay turned an existential corner and began evangelizing songs of overpowering faith in the human spirit. They have given us a “head full of dreams” and a heart that wants to connect. You can see this optimism most in “Up&Up.” The lyrics paint a world of beauty and potential begging to be harnessed. “See the forest there in every seed/Angels in the marble waiting to be freed/Just need love/when the going is rough,” and the uplifting chorus: “We're gonna get it/get it together I know/Gonna get it, get it together and flow/Gonna get it, get it together and go/Up and up and up.”
The new album is a continuation of this celebration of light.
The band often jokes about their stolid English culture. But Coldplay shows the poetic soulfulness of the British literary tradition. Coldplay is a bonfire: the kind of bonfire you see in Thomas Hardy’s novel “The Return of the Native.” The book is set in the same part of western England where Chris Martin grew up. Hardy depicts the annual festival of bonfire lighting across the hillsides of Egdon Heath. The story begins on Guy Fawkes Night — a holiday to celebrate the moment when a plot to kill the king was subverted in 1605. But the impulse to make fire clearly has deeper, more mystical origins here. In the dimming twilight, farmers gather in merry hordes to conflagrate huge piles of wood. The scene is as haunting as it is beautiful — large orange balls flashing across the black countryside, burning into the morning atop the heights, communicating ancient ties to each other and to kindred nature. Here Hardy sees something deeper than just fire; he sees the affirmation of human striving. He writes:
“To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.”
The album ends with a hallelujah that sounds both somber and trusting, as if the nihilism has already been defeated and all we need to do is accept the victory. “At first light/Throw my arms out open wide/Hallelujah/Hallelujah.” The prayer does not ring hollow and the whole album resounds with the voices of children singing, “I want to be with you 'til the whole world ends.”
Coldplay does not speak openly about religion, and Chris Martin has called himself an “all-theist” who believes in all goodness and all gods. But a spiritual feeling charges their music. In this cheerful rebellion against nihilism, happiness comes from loving the people and things of everyday life, from the connections and affinities of our mundane days. Coldplay has made a choice, and they offer us the same chance — to choose happiness over cynicism, to create instead of languish, to connect instead of protect.
The next time I sang “Everyday Life” to my son, he asked me to play the song on my phone. “Ah,” he said, after listening to the melody, “this does make you feel happy.”
Nathan Nielson is founder and director of Books & Bridges, a community institute of ideas and conversation