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Love, death, hair loss: Coldplay’s Chris Martin is burdened by the usual litany of human fears. Then again, “burdened” may be something of an understatement; paranoid to the point of frequent catatonia is probably a better description. A few of his greatest worries? A year after a disastrous date with Australian poppy Natalie Imbruglia, Martin remains babblingly obsessed with how he acted like a “twat.” He’s utterly convinced that the Grim Reaper, scythe raised and ready, is waiting just for him somewhere, someplace in the shadowy recesses of his London ‘hood. And, yes, his blond locks are indeed abandoning his dome quicker than his band’s 2000 megahit—irresistible wuss lullaby “Yellow”—found its way to the chart tops. Martin, who openly bemoans the fact that he was still a virgin two years ago, makes Thom Yorke look like James Bond.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine that Martin’s woe-is-me approach is something of a sham. After all—Oasis’ dueling goons aside—the lasting trend in Britpop is tortured frontmen leading equally glum mates into the gauzy, gushy lands of bitter regret and sweet hooks. Travis, Doves, and those poster boys of angst, sensitivity, etc., Radiohead, have all done quite well airing out their tear-streaked laundry in the most lush, low-esteem of ways. So you could understand Martin’s desire to turn bullied and lily-livered into popular and rich.

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But the more you listen to the sweeping, nuanced A Rush of Blood to the Head, the melody-woozy follow-up to Coldplay’s million-plus-selling debut, Parachutes, the more you believe that Martin & Co. really are a sad bunch of blokes, well on their way to besting their peers in terms of gravitas. The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft: Now there was a crocodile-tear-dropper, selling off his “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to only the highest bidder (Nike, natch). Martin and his mates, by contrast, have refused to sell any of their songs for commercial use. And when their label urged, then demanded, then almost throttled them to produce a quickie disc to ride Parachutes’ worldwide ride, the guys in Coldplay refused, waiting until they were collectively good and gloomy to ante up another minor masterpiece.

Lyrically, not much has changed since the band’s original coming-down party. “Come up to meet you/Tell you I’m sorry/You don’t know how lovely you are,” Martin sings in his sorta husky, sorta nasal way on the piano-driven “The Scientist,” an appropriately nagging song about desperately wanting to start over with someone who desperately wants him to get lost. And that’s basically the new album’s theme: good ol’ love: unrequited, unfair, unattainable. As Martin says in the press notes, “It’s about girls, of course. Because isn’t everything?”

The album’s title, however, is more than just a warning that Martin is about to pass out from all the worry. A Rush of Blood to the Head wisely gives greater, louder freedom to guitarist Jonny Buckland and drummer Will Champion, who were too often relegated to bit players in the mopey aural breezes that lifted Parachutes. Granted, the new disc’s sugar-smacked hooks still fall in the songs’ echoing hollows, and this being a Coldplay effort, there are of course several cuts that would make the perfect nap-time soundtrack. But that said, much of Parachutes’ softness has given way to a welcome dose of bombast. It’s evident right from the opening track, “Politik,” which starts with Buckland and Champion pounding away for all they’re worth. Hell, even “A Whisper” has a bit of a garage-rock rumble—that is, before the synthy-sounding strings wash away the oil stains on the driveway.

At the start of “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face,” Martin, backed by steely, ominous strums, sounds as if he’s headed for “Trouble” again. “I’ve got to say I’m on my way down,” he sings, another loser on the highway to heartache. But then Champion kicks the door down with a steady, determined pounding and Buckland sneaks in with a searing, serpentine lick, fuzzed then crystalline but always cutting. And when the chief head case laments, “Now when you work it out/I’m worse than you,” mulling over the words like puzzle pieces, the surrounding chorus is roaring and defiant. It’s a break-free arena-rock moment that the boys enjoy so much they do it again on “Daylight,” aiming falsetto hosannas at the sunbeams washing away the lousy night before.

Coldplay’s decision to tweak sonic formula yet continue to keep things catchy should result in even more fans flocking to the bummed boys’ side. And lest anyone think that “Yellow” was the band’s last shot at ruling the radio—did I mention that Martin also loses innumerable nights of sleep over being a one-hit wonder?—it also delivers the insta-smash “In My Place,” the lone unreleased song from the Parachutes sessions and the very best track on A Rush of Blood to the Head. Buckland, who was apparently paying attention in Great Hooks 101, concocts a rippling guitar line that blesses Martin’s lyrics with just the faintest sense of hope. “I was scared/Tired and underprepared,” the frontman admits. “But I’ll wait for it.” Sure, Martin begs like a wounded puppy by the big finish, but for all his nightmares about getting dumped, getting offed, and getting a toupee, you get the feeling that the poor bastard is gonna be just fine after all. CP