Who put the “roll” in rock 'n' roll? Bo Diddley? The Marquis de Sade? I dunno. But I do know who gutted it: Keane, Snow Patrol, and other current bands trading in make-out music for the emotionally needy. British papers refer to this ilk as “post-Coldplay,” in deference to the group that set the sonic template: trivial sentiments painted in broad, declarative brushstrokes against a backdrop of U2-like histrionics. But to judge by the lyrics, which overwork the most generic declarations of love — and usually read like the last rites of the libido — a more descriptive name comes to mind: “monogamist-oriented rock.” Or, for short: nu-MOR (as it is a kind of “middle of the road” for the young).
2008 is shaping up to be a watershed year for nu-MOR. The cycle began, as it tends to, with a new Coldplay album. Viva la Vida refined the London band's usual gooey-eyed pitch by stressing its non-U2 influences (title by Frida Kahlo, cover by Delacroix, and production by Brian Eno — well, two out of three, anyway). It's a call to the band's legion: In these perilous days, letting your lover tame you in time to The Joshua Tree is no longer its own reward. You have to couch your codependence in a larger cause. Coldplay thinks revolution will do, but don't ask the band what that means. In the radio hit “Violet Hill,” weak agitprop (“When the future is architectured by a carnival of idiots”) is shouted down by the chorus' creature comforts (“If you love me/Won't you let me know?”). It's utterly unconvincing. Yet it's how gravitas entered nu-MOR, recently coaxing at least two post-Coldplay bands — British piano-rockers Keane and their Scottish brethren Snow Patrol — into realms outside the suburban bedroom.
On its new album, Perfect Symmetry, Keane attempts a credible transition from brooding balladry to '80s dance-pop. Leadoff track “Spiraling” nearly teases the trio out of the boy-band closet. But the a-ha synths are only a temporary distraction. As it turns out, “Spiraling” isn't frivolous pop after all. Frontman Tom Chapin claims the song was inspired by the 2005 London bombings, though you'd be hard pressed to find a concrete image to support that. Instead we get the usual journal entry writ large (“I fashioned you in jewels and stone/I made you in the image of myself”) before regressing, for the rest of the album, back to the familiar — infinite variations on Coldplay's “Clocks.”
Snow Patrol, on the other hand, is completely astray in nu-MOR's brave new world. The group's latest, A Hundred Million Suns, is literally lost in space and sub-Bowie celestial themes (witness “If There's A Rocket, Tie Me To It” and “The Planets Bend Between Us [For You]”). What could've been a campy Dandy Warhols-esque romp is crushed under the weight of self-seriousness (a mind-crushingly dull pastiche of minimalist composer John Adams … ladies?).
I'd like to dismiss nu-MOR as a passing fad. But until Coldplay releases a commercial bomb, these bands will have industry-tested-and-approved coattails to latch onto. In the meantime, if you must listen to rock radio, you'd do well to never mind the bollocks. Really. It's going to be a while before you need them again.