Coldplay will perform at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show this weekend for the first and last time ever. Following the announcement of their seventh full length A Head Full of Dreams, the London quartet let slip that there won’t be another, that they will be retiring after the album’s promotion cycle subsides. It is a shame. Coldplay is so much a part of the modern musical landscape that you often forget to notice them. There is foliage, and there is Coldplay. Each hangs nobly in the background, quietly improving the texture of the scenery they’re introduced to without ever distracting attention from the foreground. There are sunsets, and there is Coldplay. The Super Bowl gig annoys many, who have written Coldplay off as dinosaurs of a mawkish, performative sincerity, and some of it is true. For 20 years, in song, on stage, and in videos, the band has dealt almost exclusively in haymakers: soaring hooks, one-liners that cut to the quick, giddy, carefree dance, and a decidedly twee multimedia presence.
Coldplay broke big on the wings of a single it’s possible we still don’t understand. “Look at the stars, look how they shine on you / And everything you do… yeah, they were all yellow,” goes the opening verse to the band’s breakthrough single “Yellow.” What was yellow? The stars? You and everything you do? Why yellow? The single served a weird and unassuming introduction to a band that would remain bafflingly affecting through the next decade and a half. 2000’s Parachutes reimagined Radiohead as hushed folk-pop, pursuing avenues of emotion and accessibility Thom Yorke is too obtuse and well-read to occupy. It was a revolution we didn’t want but maybe needed all along, shaggy bedhead everyman Chris Martin mewling our prickly feelings for us when we’re too caught in the moment to articulate them. “I never meant to cause you trouble.” “We never change, do we?” "Everything's not lost."
2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and 2005’s X&Y were the early aughts piano rock Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the former, a muscular refinement of the best ideas of its predecessor, and the latter, still cool but perhaps too adventurous for its own good. These were boom times for sentimentality in rock, years brimming with Keanes, Frays, and Muses and the disarming well of feelings that issue out from rock radio at the time. Coldplay responded with some of the most mechanistically devastating songs in their repertoire and remained a nose ahead of the competition thanks to the blunt force pairing of Martin’s ever-sharpening directness and his band’s matching gravitas. You can try, but you probably won’t find many better pop rock songs of that era than “Fix You.” It is a white squall of comforting reassurance. All you can do while it is playing is feel cared for. This is the arch function of pop.
The band shifted gears around 2008’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends and Prospekt’s March, created in tandem with British ambient innovator Brian Eno, producer, out of a great and many things, of U2’s radical 1991 career pivot Achtung Baby. It felt at times as though Coldplay’s stewardship of the mantle of Biggest Rock Band Alive was, in part, a shell game to mime the moves of their predecessor. Getting “weird” didn’t harm the songwriting apparatus, though: “Viva La Vida” proved they could pull off a heart-busting crescendo without leaning on guitars, and “Lost+” flexed Martin’s inexplicable hip-hop cachet with a Shakespearean guest verse from Jay Z. The band had begun dressing like the Bee Gees in the Sgt. Pepper’s movie, more than likely ironically, but frankly, they could’ve done “Strawberry Swing” in gorilla costumes, and it would still hit hard. The themes grew grandiose but remained affecting: "Just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost."
Latter day albums would toy with the formula, exchanging guitars for synths on 2011’s Mylo Xyloto (but still scoring jams like “Hurts Like Heaven”) before throwing them out the window in favor of the lulling calm of acoustic guitars on Ghost Stories and attempting to marry both on last winter’s swan song A Head Full of Dreams. Though the success of these experiments varied wildly as the band grappled with what it meant to be one of the last big rock bands of its time and how far to bend to stay current, Coldplay’s shiftlessness remained grounded in a bedrock of big, dumb feelings and the attempts of its smiley frontman to unpack them. It’s disconcerting, though, that their solution to the question of where to go as a mainstream rock band when there are no more mainstream rock bands has ultimately been to cease to exist.
It feels peculiar to ponder a world without a Coldplay. Like a blanket or a well-worn sweater, they are a comforting constant you’d be forgiven for takingfor granted. They were never exactly cool or well respected in their two decade run, but in a world increasingly enamored of absurdity and couched in concentric circles of distant, withering irony, Coldplay was centering calm. It’s tempting to slag them off as crescendo loving pap merchants but trickier still to drop the ever-present cloak of social media era cool and feel something for once. Let’s try it this weekend. We won’t get many more chances.