Coldplay and Fiona Apple, who shared the bill at the Forum on Saturday, have toured together in the past, but they've never had more in common than they do right now. That made the pairing an especially instructive look at how artists respond when they come to career crossroads.
The English band and the New York-bred singer-songwriter both make music that aims to connect directly with emotion. And both reemerged last year from difficult experiences recording their third albums -- projects plagued and delayed by creative uncertainty and back-to-the-drawing-board regrouping.
Apple is a quirky cult artist who sells more records than most such performers, and Coldplay is a mainstream mega-seller that also drew cult-like devotion and critical respect -- even being taken seriously as a contender for the Olympian stature of a U2.
That prospect hit a bump with the problematic third album, "X&Y," whose sales of more than 2.5 million aren't chopped liver but still fall short of those of its predecessor, 2002's "A Rush of Blood to the Head."
It also stalled artistically, failing to advance the band's vision despite all the retooling. Criticism of the quartet as makers of blandly pretty music began to erode the acclaim, and although "Clocks" won the record of the year Grammy in 2003, music from "X&Y" is nominated only in lesser categories for this week's awards.
Concerts can provide a shelter from such storms, and on Saturday Coldplay carried on in its usual entertaining and engaging manner. That was fine as far as it went, but a more forceful statement of purpose, a transcendent moment to show that they're still on the upward path, might have been more to the point under the circumstances
But with Chris Martin's enthusiasm and irreverence serving as a buoyant balance to the music's yearning balladry and knotty philosophical musings, the concert showed that the band is as comfortable in the arena scale as it is in vast outdoor fields and small theaters. The lanky singer has a knack for effortlessly transforming any room into something like a pub, seeming to traverse the width of the stage in a few long strides and chatting amiably about this and that.
Saturday it was the traffic, and an apology for looking like a Bee Gee (the band has been on the road and its hairdressers are back in England). Along with the humor comes a sense of sincere gratitude for the fans' support.
Martin needs to bottle some of that spirit and pour it into Coldplay's next music. Except for the propulsive hit "Speed of Sound" and the elegantly driving "Talk," the songs from "X&Y" it played Saturday sounded like lesser species of such grand, rounded "Rush of Blood" selections as "Politik" and "Clocks."
Maybe the aim was to move away from the lushness, to create a tougher setting for its lyrics' offers of comfort and repair laced with currents of doubt and darkness. But instead it's become more turgid, and now the band seems cornered by its success.
Early in the show it played "Yellow," the radiant hymn of devotion that instantly triggered a mass crush in the pop masses in 2000. The song's emotional immediacy remained bracing, but it also underscored how much Coldplay's emotional expression has become constrained by its musical formula.
Nobody said it was easy, but it looks as if it will be back to the drawing board one more time.
Apple fared better in her creative recovery. Her album "Extraordinary Machine" just finished at No. 5 in the Village Voice's prestigious critics' poll of last year's records, but if it was a success on that front, it hasn't given the singer the kind of commercial profile she had when she arrived 10 years ago.
Maybe that's why Apple, a legitimate headliner on her own at small theaters, has signed on for the unglamorous stint as opening act on an arena tour. Or maybe it was just a way for the famously feisty artist to get herself worked up.
On Saturday she seemed to have one eye on the number of empty seats as the Forum slowly filled, and she kept telling the audience what a good time they were going to have, implying that it would be after she was done.
Actually she got a good response from the people who were there. Her band's sound wasn't great, but there was no recurrence of the dire sonic imbalance that reportedly torpedoed her recent Wiltern LG concert.
Most important, Apple demonstrated that emotion can govern the music and shape it to its demands. Her husky-voiced, humor-leavened accounts of love's intimate intricacies are alive with distinctive language and inner fire, and on stage Saturday her musicians followed her lead, giving the music the kind of spontaneity and feeling that the headliner should hope to find.
Where: Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim
When: 8 p.m. today and Tuesday
Price: Sold out
Contact: (714) 704-2400