During a break from recording, an assistant has tracked down Chris Martin at the Notting Hill studio where Coldplay are wrapping up their third album. There are some things to go over. ''The queen has invited you to a tea at Bucky Palace,'' she cheerfully informs him.
Martin is intrigued, momentarily. ''We do live in the neighborhood,'' he figures ''we'' meaning him and ''G.P.,'' as his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, is known among at least some of the support staff. But...nah. ''I don't think we should go,'' he quickly decides, ''as much as I like the queen. We've got three more years of rebellion in us. What was the other stuff?'' Next on the agenda is approving a lighting rig for an upcoming promotional tour of clubs and theaters. Martin frets that the setup is too outlandish. ''We're gonna play small venues with this giant thing that's like something out of Waterworld? Then we'll half-sell all the tickets and be in the debtors' jail!''
And there you have Coldplay's dreamy, neurotic frontman in a nutshell: one minute, too cocky to share a few lumps of sugar with the royals, and the next, worried that his little rock combo won't sell enough tickets to cover the electric bill. Hubris and panic seem to go hand in hand for the devilishly above-average Martin. Although he keeps tongue close to cheek through these alternately self-effacing and self-aggrandizing pronouncements more so than you'd expect for someone whose lyrics and social causes are so famously earnest some of the insecurities may be real. Coldplay have been in the studio on and off (mostly on) for 16 months, retreating from the finish line as often as they have neared it.
Producers have been changed. Multiple variations on the same songs have been recorded. The tone has gone from initially ''sounding like we were driving a Bland Rover'' to something that was too experimental and electronic, before settling in on a formula that just sounds like good old Coldplay, albeit with more exciting dynamics. Tunes have been jettisoned at the last minute because they made the album sound too overtly commercial, only to be sensibly re-added at the last minute. ''We could have Hotel California on our hands, but we could have the bargain bin within three weeks,'' says Martin. ''We have no perspective left.''
On a January day spent cooped up in London's Sarm West studio, the labor pains aren't over. For all the legends about the sophomore jinx, it's more often album 3 that's make-or-break at least if it was the second one that perfected a signature sound, as 2002's A Rush of Blood to the Head did. ''Yeah, you can't win on your third album,'' says Martin. ''You're f---ed. I knew we should have stopped. Or someone should have shot me. I think that's the best thing that could happen to us, if someone shot me in the head. Death is guaranteed to make your last work seem good, you know?''
This being England, there are few guns around, and so it's back to work. Martin returns to the control booth, where the quartet have set up bass, guitar, and electric piano in an attempt to finally work through the project's most problematic song, ''Talk.'' They're on their fourth arrangement of the tune, based on a riff nicked from an old Kraftwerk track, and something still isn't working. After a half hour of jamming and suggestions about what to add or subtract, the talk begins to turn more blunt. ''It just doesn't feel good, listening to it or playing it,'' murmurs bassist Guy Berryman. ''It doesn't sound inspiring,'' agrees drummer Will Champion. ''Is it the song, though?'' asks Martin. ''What is it?'' Everyone looks at their feet. Crickets.