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Michael's Number Ones: "The Scientist" by Coldplay



DATE

WEEKS

August 23, 2003

3

Calling a love song "The Scientist" feels counter-intuitive. It's like writing a song about cars and calling it "The Pedestrian". Love isn't something that can be approached analytically. When you feel in love with someone, whether it's a romantic partner or a family member, or even a best friend, you don't take the time to question why.


But I suppose early 2000s Coldplay could get away with something like that. They were at the peak of their creative powers, and by August 2003, I knew that A Rush of Blood to the Head was a classic album. The album was on constant rotation for me because it felt like the most vibrant form of music that was being made at the time.


Maybe Coldplay shouldn't have had the juice to get three #1's from one album, but a song as powerful as "The Scientist", combined with a brilliant and heartbreaking video, was just undeniable.



Chris Martin was inspired to write "The Scientist" after listening to George Harrison's 1970 album All Things Must Pass. That album is an absolute all-time great, excessive in its length and experimentation, but introspective in its spirituality. I can't overstate this: go listen to this album if you haven't already. Not only is it the best solo album by a former Beatle, but it's among the best albums of all time. (For the record, my favorite song from the album is the title track.)


The song Martin was drawn to was "Isn't It a Pity", which Martin tried to base an original song on, but was unable to. Eventually, the chord progression for "The Scientist" just came to him. You can tell that Harrison's song is all over "The Scientist", but that's alright with me.



Like many of the songs on All Things Must Pass, Harrison wrote "Isn't It a Pity" during his time with the Beatles, but the song was rejected by the band. The song describes a relationship reaching a low point, with Harrison's narrator lamenting how he's taken things for granted. He's wondering if he's to blame for the relationship hitting its ebb. Even though it was written before the Beatles broke up, it sure feels like he's talking about the group not being able to stay together.


The same themes run through the lyrics for "The Scientist". Martin's narrator wants to apologize for something he's done. There's a heartbreaking quality to Martin's voice; he sounds drained, as if he's spent so much mental energy trying to solve a puzzle that can't be solved. "I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart. Questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart." I'm not sure about this, but that might be my favorite lyric from any Coldplay song.


The instruments on "The Scientist" are pretty spare; all the members of Coldplay are credited as songwriters, but it's mostly Martin's piano carrying the day until the end, when Jonny Buckland's guitar takes over. It feels like there should be a grand climax to the song, but I don't think it ever really gets there. If it did, I think the message of the song would've been muddied.


Let's talk about that video. Jamie Thraves was tapped to direct it; he had directed videos for a number of British acts including Radiohead, Blur, Travis, and The Verve. At first it doesn't seem unusual; Martin sings the song lying on a mattress on the sidewalk. Then the whole thing moves in reverse. Martin is wandering the streets and then going through the woods, until we come upon a car crash and a woman lying unconscious on the ground. The woman is Martin's partner, and the two of them were in the car wreck. Heartbreakingly, we see Martin's partner taking off her seatbelt shortly before they crash.


That video ripped my heart out at the time, and it still has an effect on me to this day. It wasn't the first video to use reverse motion. Spike Jonze did it in back in 1995 for The Pharcyde's "Drop", an underrated classic of '90s hip-hop. But that video is basically Jonze fucking around with the technique. Thraves uses reverse motion here to actually tell a story, and a well-crafted one at that. Martin needed a month to learn how to sing the song backwards for the video.


That video got a lot of play on MTV2 and Fuse. At the 2003 MTV VMAs, the video took home three awards, including Best Group Video, and Best Direction. I shouldn't get shocked at award snubs anymore, but I'm surprised it wasn't even nominated for Video of the Year. Missy Elliott deservedly won the award that year for "Work It", but I wish the top prize would've gone to Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". (Cash's version of "Hurt" peaked at #36 on my chart. Nine Inch Nails will eventually appear in this column.)


"The Scientist" was the second single from A Rush of Blood to the Head in the UK; in the United States, it was the third. It became the fourth top 10 single for the band in their homeland. American audiences still weren't fully catching on the band yet; the song peaked at #18 on the alternative chart and failed to make the Billboard Hot 100.



Nevertheless, Coldplay was making inroads in the United States and around the world. The band dropped a live album later on in 2003, and a new song from the compilation, "Moses", made it to #24 on the alternative chart. Somehow, it failed to make my chart; I chalk it up to the song not getting added on my local alternative station at the time, which meant I may have only heard it once or twice.


Coldplay was emerging as one of the most compelling artists of the decade. And I couldn't wait to see what they came up with next. It was unlikely they could top the majesty of A Rush of Blood to the Head, but they were up to the task of trying. And the band would only get bigger as a result. We will see Coldplay again in this column.


EXTRAS

MadTV parodied the video in a 2003 episode where the song was retitled "The Narcissist". Michael McDonald (not that Michael McDonald) portrays Martin as a klutz who walks backwards into people, destroys a painting, and generally causes havoc. Here it is:



Here's former Number Ones artist Avril Lavigne covering the song for BBC Radio 1 in 2007:




In 2011, Willie Nelson covered "The Scientist" for a commercial for Chipotle, and included it on his 60th album Heroes. Willie Nelson is a goddamn American treasure. Here's his version:






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