Keep it clean

10 July 2014

1:00 PM

10 July 2014

1:00 PM

I am still listening to the new Coldplay album, and liking it more and more, and not just because everyone keeps telling me how terrible it is. There is perversity in all enthusiasm, for sure, but the unanimity of critical disapproval in this case seems to have mixed with popular ennui to create a bracing cocktail of contempt and contumely. It just makes me want to play the damn thing even louder. Ghost Stories (Parlophone) is the Millwall of break-up albums. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t care.

Maybe it’s because break-up albums are supposed to be dogged, downbeat affairs, recorded in one take in some grotty old studio with a 1950s mixing desk and the door hanging off its hinges. But this one is luscious, expensively recorded and clear as a bell. In fact, it’s one of the cleanest albums I think I have ever heard. You could eat your dinner off some of these orchestral arrangements. And when, after half an hour of moping, we launch into the joyous dance-pop of ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’, which has been remixed by Giorgio Moroder but needn’t have been because it sounds so much like him anyway, the clarity is almost breathtaking. In years to come, this record will be used as a demonstration disc by hi-fi salespeople, just as the intro for Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’ always used to be. Lots of people hated that, too.

Cleanness in pop music has long had a poor press. Most listeners prefer a bit of grit in the oyster, and a sizeable minority will take the grit and throw the oyster away altogether. And yet, every improvement in recording technology has made clean music more feasible and easier to make. If you want your music to sound dirty nowadays, you have to go out of your way to make it so. In the records of the White Stripes, say, or more recently the Black Keys, there’s an almost wilful rejection of what the studio has to offer. Plug in, switch on the recording equipment, play songs, job done. Such music is supposedly more ‘authentic’, although in fact it’s exactly the reverse: it’s a fake form of authenticity, whereas much of the best pop music has always been authentic in its fakeness. (Think of the Brill Building songs of the early 1960s, or ABC’s ‘The Look Of Love’, or Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’. All smoke and mirrors, and unimprovably so.)

Not that I’m dissing dirt, exactly. If great pop has tended towards cleanliness, great rock’n’roll hasn’t had a bath for weeks. I heard ‘Pretty Vacant’ in the kitchen on Radio 2 the other day, and the simple reason it’s still played is that it’s a work of genius. (My washing-up improved immeasurably thereafter, both in speed and quality control.) How many songs have that purity of attack? A couple of hundred maybe, and there are probably thousands of bands now recording millions of songs in the hope that just one of them will have the same effect. Unfortunately, while it’s easy to make a record with just guitars, bass and drums, it’s much harder to make a good one, as Metallica’s set at Glastonbury the other day made agonisingly obvious. (Heavy metal is dirt for the sake of dirt, lovingly encrusted, water-avoidant, soap-shy.)

I will admit that my own tastes gravitate towards the hygienic. I listen to Steely Dan’s ‘Hey Nineteen’ and luxuriate in the wide open spaces between the instruments. Clean does not always mean antiseptic, though. The oyster needs its grit more than it knows. I have never seen the point of the Manic Street Preachers, for instance, but their recent records seem richer, more adventurous, cleaner, while retaining all the old bellow and bash. It’s a mix that really works, to my ears at least.

Is this another aging thing, the desire for cleaner music? Maybe for the Manic Street Preachers, who are now solidly middle-aged and probably go ‘Oof!’ when they sit down on sofas. And it’s true that chart tunes have rarely sounded as busy and discordant as they do now, as though their prime function is to sound appalling when played on phones by teenagers on the top deck of the 43 bus. But Coldplay and their lovely glowing textures are certainly doing it for me at the moment. Didn’t Chris and Gwyneth say something about ‘a clean break’? If so, is this what they meant?

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