Through A Note Darkly: Iggy Pop, Coldplay, The Band

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Vill ranks and reflects on three albums he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.

3. Coldplay: Parachutes (2000)

Personal Favorite: “Don’t Panic”

Summarizing Lyric: “But I won’t let you down (Oh yeah, yeah, yes I will)” off of “Sparks”

There were three bands that turned my ten-year-old ears away from the Ja Rule collaborations my mom would play on the radio and towards more guitar-based rock–Linkin Park, Fall Out Boy, and Coldplay. Of the three, Coldplay was the one that kept ending up on my personal playlists, even when the ones overrun with metal, because Coldplay’s music is undemanding; you don’t have to be in any particular mood to get into most of their songs and I understand that's so hated. Easy-to-love music can make people feel like they're being cheated, like the band’s playing it safe, being hacky, but I don’t think Coldplay was trying to play it safe with their debut album. Yes, Parachutes has its overly sappy, textbook-Coldplay moments (“Don’t Panic”'s beautiful world chorus kicking off the album), but there are shining bits of cynicism and self-awareness that display the artistry some dissenters think Coldplay lacks.

“Parachutes”, a forty-five second tune, has Chris Martin’s sugar-packed delivery of “I’ll be loving you always,” be countered by a dissonant F#m on the Johnny Buckland’s acoustic guitar; “Sparks” has Martin’s promise of not letting someone down be followed by a haunting, honest drone of “Oh, yes I will”; “High Speed” has Martin singing “We’ve been living life inside a bubble” with a hint of sadness, like he’s realized that the beautiful world he was praising in “Don’t Panic” wasn’t so beautiful after all; all of these moments show that Coldplay knew how sappy they were being, how sappy they wanted the world to be, but how ultimately unsappy things sometimes are. Admittedly, the cynicism is washed away by the album’s final track, “Everything’s Not Lost”. It let’s the listeners off easy with a sing-along ending, pushing you off the plane with a parachute instead of a boulder, but is that bad?

I couldn’t help but think of the ending to Rocky after hearing Parachutes' anthemic ending. Like ParachutesRocky has its realist moments, the big one being Rocky losing, but Rocky buries its realism under Rocky and Adrian uniting in the ring, “Gonna Fly Now” reaching its orchestral peak, and that over-the-top freeze frame bringing tears of joy to your eyes because it sends the message that at the end of the day, even if you lose, “everything’s not lost.” Extreme optimism annoys me and others who are tired of happy endings, but when optimism comes from Rocky or Parachutes, from art that earns my smile by having bits of pain throughout the story, I end up loving it.

2. The Band: The Band (1969)

Personal Favorite: “Whispering Pines”

Summarizing Lyric: “The good old days, they’re all gone … we’re still one and the same, just you and me” off of “Unfaithful Servant”

It’s crazy to think that if I was born just over a century ago I might have personally known a few of the characters in The Band. From Virgil Caine, the train worker holding back his tears while thinking about the Civil War in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” to Ragtime Willie and his seventy-three year old sailor friend, tired seamen longing for one more night home with the folks, in “Rockin’ Chair,” The Band gave voices to characters left out of history books by painting pictures with their music. These scenic moments, like the aqueous organ coming in at the line “Let the waves rush in,” during “Whispering Pines” and Levon Helm pushing his vocal range throughout “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Town” to show the pain Caine associates with youth being trampled on by war boots, are what make The Band's The Band a historical document as much as it is an enjoyable album to ragtime and slow dance to. 

1. Iggy Pop: The Idiot (1977)

Personal Favorite: “China Girl”

Summarizing Lyric: “Looked as if they put the whole world down” off of “Dum Dum Boys”

The Idiot feels like a John Carpenter directed night in a Romanian castle riddled with stoned and horny steam-punk vampires. The night starts with strippers dancing and vampires grooving through the first three songs, but then we start seeing the costs of the fun with the more gloomy than groovy “Baby” playing, the opening lyrics, "Baby, don’t you cry” immediately letting you know something’s wrong. From “Baby” the fun-loving vampires become characters to fear and pity with the seemingly uplifting “China Girl” devolving into a screeching Iggy Pop revealing the obsessive nature of the characters roaming the Romanian castle, the immediately depressing “Dum Dum Boys” showcasing the self-destructive and untrustworthy nature of the vampires, the tear-inducing “Tiny Girls” showing how a simple need for honest love can lead to betrayal from the most innocent looking people, and the haunting slow dance “Mass Production” that puts the party to rest by showing the lack of empathy and identity one leaves such monstrous parties with (“Before you go … give me a number of a girl almost like you”). For every party there’s a person who leaves crying, for every buzz and high there’s a chance of addiction, a stupid decision, the loss of yourself because nothing comes free. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun, but it’s good to remember, especially for a college kid like myself, that unchecked fun can mutate into months of rehab and more than just college debt. 

The Idiot won me over with it's restrained strangeness. The eerie, steam-punky sounds that coat the tracks, Iggy's drone-like to screamo vocal delivery, David Bowie on the sax and not on the mic, all of these elements would've lead to a weird-sounding album no matter what, but the fact that the record is also listenable, even danceable at times, shows a level of music mastery that other weird albums sometimes lack. Love the other two, but the weirdo idiot takes this week's imaginary trophy.