In Brief: It’s too poppy for a lot of critics, and sometimes the cliches bug me, but I’ll admit to loving the bright colors that Coldplay uses to spray paint every wall.
Satirical pundit Stephen Colbert made a rather witty observation not too long ago when he interviewed Chris Martin. After noting the numerous accolades and megaton album sales that Coldplay had been pulling, he quipped, “At what point can we stop calling you ‘alternative’?” Obviously, Colbert was far from the first to make this observation, but it got a chuckle from the band’s lovably goofy lead singer, as if to say he’s well aware of the band’s status as the most mainstream of rock bands. Shoot, I’ve considered it ridiculous to call them “alternative” every since they won the Alternative Grammy for their debut album Parachutes. I enjoyed that album for being something a little different, at least in relation to most of what was in my music collection at the time. It was shy, mostly acoustic and understated, much more Britpop or folk than rock. I guess not all “alternative” music has to sound grungy, but I certainly wouldn’t have used the label on anything that genteel. It only took two albums for the band to discover stadium-sized bombast and plant themselves into the center of pop culture’s collective consciousness with A Rush of Blood to the Head a few years later. That album and the somewhat misguided follow-up X&Y had its experiments, but for the most part they veered toward a safe, plodding piano sound that they did reasonably well but that grew tired after several iterations and seemingly every other rock band with a pianist front and center trying to imitate it. Coldplay finally wised up and learned how to subvert a lot of their own tropes on their fascinating fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All Its Friends, which for me was the first album that realized their true potential. Despite that, something about them was still a tad pretentious, looking up to their heroes in bands like U2 and trying to claim a stature just as big and world-dominating. They got reamed by the press for that attitude more than for the music, I sometimes suspect. They got sued for hitting a little too close to home on ideas they’d (perhaps subconsciously) borrowed from other musicians. At some point, they must have gotten tired of claiming to be anything out-of-left-field or highbrow artistic, because their newest album finally finds them firmly embracing their status as a mega-hit pop band and not apologizing for it.
Mylo Xyloto (named after the randomness of the universe, if you believe one version of Chris Martin’s explanation for it) is a colorful, peppy little album, with the fully transparent concept of a love story designed to have a happy ending. At times it seems to appeal to our most base instincts of wanting music to have a catchy beat and a cheery melody, and perhaps some vaguely uplifting sentiments. Certainly Coldplay’s done these things, but here they’ve ditched a lot of the restraint and the weighty slow tempos that served to belabor the point on some of their less remarkable tracks from albums past. With Brian Eno once again at the helm, making liberal use of his synthesized soundscapes, it’s tempting to claim that Mylo is the album X&Y was too afraid to be. At times I almost wonder if Eno was more a part of the band than the other three guys who are actually in the band. But then in others I hear Jonny Buckland‘s guitar riffs ringing out more confidently than they perhaps ever have, and Will Champion‘s drums fully embracing the glory of the sixteenth note, and I realize that the full band’s still hard at work, just without trying to fool you into thinking this is some gritty, subversive form of rock music. Mylo only briefly strays into rock-oriented territory, about as much as it strays into R&B territory, which is a new sound for Coldplay that I’m estimating won’t be too popular with longtime fans. (They did a duet with freaking Rihanna, after all. I think that puts the final nail in the “alternative” coffin, right there.) For the most part it’s synthpop, with the occasional break for an ambient interlude (of the mostly pointless variety, I’m afraid) or a jangly acoustic track for old times’ sake (just a little slicker). Critics have already lambasted Coldplay for this shift in their sound, but I don’t think it’s a terrible move – just one that requires a bit of adjusting. If anything, it sprinkles a new sense of life into their old formula of hammering a memorable piano riff into your head for the duration of a song and calling it a hit (which wasn’t always bad to begin with – “Clocks” never got unstuck from my brain and I ain’t complaining). If their goal was to put a smile on my face while not sounding like all the other bands trying to sound like them, then mission accomplished!
Where I’m not quite sure if Coldplay accomplished the mission they set out on is in the lyrics. Chris Martin has always had a penchant for crooning feel-good cliches with the sort of schoolboy eagerness that makes us believe he thinks it’s the first time they’re being sung with such feeling, and at times that’s part of his dorky charm. At other times it just belabors the point and drags down an already tedious song. When he deviates from that, he often serves up the sort of word salad that you just can’t make sense of even though you’re sure he wants it to make you feel all lovey-dovey, sympathetic, or perhaps even a little paranoid. At times he doesn’t even really know what it means. (“Yellow” for starters.) So you get some of that nonsense here and there throughout Mylo, and I won’t lie – some of it makes me scratch my head in a good way. But most of the time it’s like one of those cheesy greeting cards telling me to keep my chin up because a better day will come – and it damn near gets away with it, too, just by being so doggedly earnest and so musically kaleidoscopic. Folks who think serious rock music should discuss the hard-hitting issues of the day or be defiantly subversive or whatnot (e.g. most music critics) won’t find much use for this transparent love story. Folks like me who enjoy having music mess with their head a bit but, yet can’t deny the value of an interestingly crafted pop album, will probably still find it refreshing enough to be worth buying, even if it isn’t as interesting of a statement as Viva la Vida. To me, it’s probably still their second-most consistent album, unless I’m in a really mellow mood and prefer the late-night daze of Parachutes. The highs are pretty high, and any missteps they make are neither embarrassing enough nor drag on long enough to hit the same lows that X&Y or A Rush of Blood to the Head did, so I’m still pretty confident saying that Coldplay is still putting out some of their best work here, even if it’s gonna take a lot more than this for them to outdo Viva la Vida.
1. Mylo Xyloto
Expecting an epic title track? Too bad, ’cause it’s just an intro. I have no idea whether the bells and shimmering guitar in this song are meant to be some sort of motif that introduces the protagonist couple that this album is supposedly about, or whether I’m taking spurious about the album too seriously by even thinking that. I do know that this sounds kind of Christmas-y, which is appropriate for the time of year it was released. It transitions into the first song in such a way as to almost guarantee that it could never be a single, though, because if you were to start with track 2, it would be incredibly jarring.
2. Hurts Like Heaven
I’ll admit that I was completely unprepared when the peppy dance beat kicked in at the beginning of this one. The intro gives no warning that it’s coming, and it’s such a self-consciously dorky, 80’s exercise routine sort of beat that you just have to hope they’re doing this with a wink and a nudge. Fortunately, for all of its synthpoppy social awkwardness, it’s an incredibly memorable song, with existential longing (“I struggle with the feeling that my life isn’t mine”) opening up into a curiously bright metaphor that is as winsome as it is cheesy (“You used your heart as a weapon, and it hurts like heaven.”) Chris Martin’s keyboards and Jonny Buckland’s guitar absolutely soar through this one, and despite its highly programmed origins, it’ll be an effective stadium-rouser in their live shows. It’s fair warning: If you’re gonna get much enjoyment out of Mylo Xyloto, you have to accept its inherent, bright-smiling cheesiness. So far, I’m on board.
This one’s been riding high on the charts in literally most of the developed world lately, so it probably needs no introduction, but I’ll make my lame attempt to describe it anyway by saying that it takes your typical recipe for a mid-tempo, piano-driven Coldplay single, adds synthetic bass and an organ and a vaguely urban beat, and stirs them all up into a radio-ready but admittedly effective concoction. I wrestle with myself over whether to love this one or distance myself from it on principle. The rhyme scheme alone is almost too silly for me to handle: “When she was just a girl/She expected the world/But it flew away from her reach/And the bullets catch in her teeth.” Once again it’s a solid melody that saves the day, as the massive chorus hook comes pouring in: “PARA! PARA! PARADISE!” It normally drives my OCD side a bit insane when people sing only parts of a word in songs, so sometimes I like to imagine they’re singing “Pair o’ dice.” (Then again, that doesn’t make it any better. But who am I kidding – I’d belt out those fragmented words at the top of my lungs just as readily as I’d croon the meaningless two-word chorus to “Clocks”.) Finding the little instrumental layers within the production and the occasional melodic twists that they tack on just to keep things fresh is what makes the song work for me, even if the more superficially noticeable elements of it might strike me as a bit lacking in subtlety.
4. Charlie Brown
I have no idea what’s up with the distant, echoing, chipmunk voice that heralds the beginning of this song. It sounds like a cartoon character, but it ain’t a Peanuts character, because they all either speak normal English unless they’re the adults that say “Wah wah wah WAAAAHHHH.” The lead riff is pretty victorious once it kicks in though, guitar and piano ringing out in unison, rhythm ever-so-slightly tweaked to give it a slightly misshapen feel, which reminds me of “42” or “Death and All His Friends”, except way poppier. The lyrics sound illogically far from down-and-out for a song titled after a relentlessly picked-on comic strip character – they’re all about finding hope again and glowing in the dark and stuff, and other than a passing reference to a “cartoon heart” I can’t map the meaning of it to the title. If I squint my ears (What? Ears can totally be squinted) during the mellow piano outro, I can almost imagine the melody to “Christmastime Is Here” taking over, but I suspect I might just be hearing what I want to hear in the process of trying to make sense of something that potentially isn’t meant to make sense. Despite that, it’s a well enough song that I can forgive Coldplay for rhyming “girl” with “world” for two tracks in a row.
5. Us Against the World
When I hear a gentle acoustic strum matched by the silky smooth melody of an electric guitar looping about, I’m reminded of the understated warmth of Parachutes. I mean shoot, the chorus even tells us to “Sloooow-oooow-oooow-ooow it down.” That’s what Parachutes was all about, and it came from a time when we didn’t expect big, complicated statements from Coldplay, and it was arguably better for it. Nostalgia doesn’t quite make this one an instant favorite for me, because I actually thought it was quite boring at first, but its simple melody and carefully applied texture have managed to win me over to the point where it serves as a good pick-me-up when I’m in the right mellow mood for it. Once the piano kicks in, it’s actually more layered and massive than you might come to expect from its simple beginning. The religious references are interesting (“The Saints go Marching In” is name-checked, as is Daniel in the lion’s den), though in Coldplay’s case I tend not to read anything more into those than an attempt to be vaguely inspirational. There’s something about the determination of two friends to stick together through whatever heartbreak precipitated their run of bad luck that hits my emotional core even if my brain is going, “Too simplistic”, so I’ll give this one a passing grade.
Alright guys, two nagging issues that I need to get off my chest. One, Roman numerals don’t stand for anything. So why the periods when you’re just trying to disguise a number? Two, I know that the number in question is 2009, so it only makes me wonder if the only productive thing you guys did for all of 2009 was create a dull, two-note ambient instrumental with weird spacey noises in the background that does nothing aside from being a pallette cleanser before a huge single that honestly deserves bigger fanfare to introduce it.
7. Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall
What a single, though. It’s one of those completely transparent, carefree moments that just shoves its meaning right upfront, not caring how obvious it is, and that manages against the odds to win me over despite a total lack of subtlety. The big, blaring synth hook is irresistible, as is the gallant, quick-fingered guitar riff riding atop it all, hammering its point home repetitively but doing so in the most irresistible way. It’s probably one of the densest things Coldplay’s ever submitted for radio’s consideration, avoiding their usual approach of starting simple and building to a crescendo by just declaring its love for beautiful soul-refreshing music loud and proud, right from the beginning. Are teardrops as a waterfall a cheesy metaphor? Sure. Does it ruin some of Coldplay’s artistic cred for them to create such a straight-up happy song about the healing power of happy songs? Is it OK to love this despite Chris Martin’s amusingly weird metaphors such as the oft-derided “I’d rather be a comma than a full stop”? I say hell yeah. It’s got just enough quirkiness to it to overcome the cliches, and the surprise factor of Coldplay doing something so danceable that also gives most of the band a chance to shine still gets me whenever I listen to this one and think that they could have just tried to retread the sound of earlier singles. Will Champion is in especially fine form here, wailing away on those sixteenth notes like this is a long-lost treasure from the early days of U2, and the band must be enjoying his rhythm quite a bit, because they pull back everything at the end to let pure percussion close out the song.
8. Major Minus
Well, it can’t all be happiness and sunshine. Interestingly one of the album’s most acoustic-based tracks is also one of it’s most rock-oriented ones, taking a left turn from moody jangle-pop into highly rhythmic alt-rock, definitely borrowing a page from U2’s Achtung Baby, yet sounding inventive enough to stand on its own as something that draws from disparate influences without exactly copying them. The paranoia about being constantly watched reminds me of some of Radiohead‘s more nervous moments from the mid-90’s, while Chris Martin’s exasperated falsetto makes use of his voice in a way that I don’t think any other Coldplay song has. Viva la Vida had its moments of paranoia, and you can look as far back as “Spies” and find some subtle nightmares lurking behind Chris Martin’s boyish grin. But the fear of Big Brother has never been this addictively rhythmic coming from Coldplay. Johnny Buckland, Will Champion, and bassist Guy Berryman just lock into such an irresistibly fast-paced groove here that the song has no time left over for dull moments. The odd song out actually manages to steal my attention away from the big happy singles and become my favorite track on the album.
This short acoustic track, on the other hand, doesn’t really do it for me. For some reason I’ve hardly ever found Chris Martin as compelling when it’s just the starkness of his voice and an acoustic guitar (and, in this case, strings). It is nice to hear the intimacy of the squeaks and little harmonic notes coming from the acoustic, but the song floats in and out a bit too quickly to make much of an impact (just two minutes, really, with a very brief interlude tacked on to the end to show off the guitar harmonics a bit more before we plunge headlong back into techno-ville). It’s the sort of fragment that reminds me of the title track from Parachutes, with the musical character of the not-fully-formed “‘Til Kingdom Come”, the underwhelming bonus track from X&Y. It’s not long enough to hate, but not interesting enough to love, either.
10. Princess of China
Whoa, did I just get dropped off in the middle of some sort of IDM dance party? That’s my first impression when I hear the glitched-out, silver-and-gold synth riff that absolutely dominates this song. Then an R&B rhythm kicks in and I’m left wondering where the band is. Then my inner electronic rock geek speaks out and reminds me that there’s an electric guitar swooping in like an mad bomber above all of the synthetic noise, and I recall that I can’t kock this too bad when I’ve already spent so much time defending U2’s Pop. Despite all that, I’m still unsure about how well Chris Martin’s simplistic love song plays amidst all of the glitz, and I become double unsure when Rihanna shows up for a duet vocal. Don’t get me wrong – girl’s got a gantastic voice and she adds an air of sultry sassiness to a song that probably wouldn’t have worked at all without her. But when Chris’s side basically amounts to a lot of vagueness (“Once upon a time, somebody ran/Somebody ran away saying, ‘Fast as I can/I got to go'”) and Rihanna’s amounts to a recap of a relationship that was all harsh fights and games, I can’t help but wonder if we’re really just piecing together veiled autobiographical issues that probably have nothing to do with each other. Rihanna’s lament that “I could have been a princess, you’d be a king” sounds about the right speed for an attitude-laden screw-you-to-the-ex song that draws the ladies to the center and the guys to the outskirts on any given dancefloor, but it’s completely out of context for Coldplay. When the two finally converge at the conclusion – “Oh, you really hurt me” – I’m no longer emotionally tracking with the song because it’s doing way too much telling with not nearly enough showing, and that stands in stark contrast to even some of the other lyrically obvious songs on this album. It’s still catchy as hell, I won’t lie – but it’s one moment where the experimentation takes Coldplay a bit too far from their roots to be believable. As a radio single, it would almost play like a Rihanna song with Chris Martin on guest vocals.
11. Up in Flames
Coldplay goes fairly minimalist for this one – little more than piano and a stark drum loop with the bass notes pounding like a heartbeat. It’s a bit of a post-mortem song, the dust settling after the fiery breakup and a man left sorting through the ashes, realizing that this time, she’s really gone. It’s funny how I like to refer to Coldplay’s former style as “slow-burning”, when that’s actually what this song is literally about (and its chorus makes that known rather repetitively). Take away the drum loop and it could just as easily be a quiet piano ballad from the old days, so I like that they have put a slight spin on it, but there’s still not quite enough here to make the song a standout. It’s a reflectively sad bit of closure before the album’s final act, I guess – a needed breather in between two much more intense songs.
12. A Hopeful Message
The mood swings back up toward the upbeat with the last of the album’s interludes, which finds that heartbeat pounding behind a faded fanfare of rattling percussion and peaceful synths. You can tell it’s leading into something very anthemic, but once again, the shift from interlude to actual song doesn’t really maintain the rhythmic flow, and is a bit jarring.
13. Don’t Let It Break Your Heart
You can put this one right up there with “Hurts Like Heaven” and “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” on the happiness scale, because it comes slamming in with yet another speedy, danceable rhythm – a little heavier on the guitars and the conventional stadium rock arrangement this time, but every bit as exuberant as those earlier songs. Chris Martin may as well be your personal motivational speaker, urging you that no matter how much you’ve missed the mark, you’re never down for the count. I’ll admit it – it’s a total Hallmark card of a song, and it probably plays into the album’s narrative in the sense that it’s meant to be a pick-me-up after the relationship that got dashed on the rocks in those last few songs. But there’s a sense of forgiveness and redemption to it as he cries out, “Even in your rains and shadows/Still we never gonna part/Ah, come on baby/Don’t let it break your heart.” I admire the intent behind the song even if the cliches do get a bit weighty – it’s the sort of victorious moment that would play perfectly as a set closer or as the first song back during the encore. By the time the thumping heartbeat takes us across the bridge into the final song, I’m definitely thinking they’ve hammered a bit too heavily on that theme, but I’ll admit that those deep, resounding thumps are a compelling way to finish the song.
14. Up with the Birds
The final track is an exercise in bait-and-switch – and I mean that in a good way. It starts as a deceptively simple piano ballad, the background vocals and guitars beginning to shimmer and swell up behind it, giving it rhythm and body. Still, this doesn’t really prepare us for the complete mood shift of its second half, which is essentially one last big anthem to send us out on a happy note. I think this was done deliberately, for much the same reason as a similar trick was pulled in “Death and All His Friends” at the end of Coldplay’s previous album. Thoe guitar chords ringing out over the atmospheric background are satisfying even if the emotional chord they’re trying to strike is a rather obvious one – it’s a song about starting over and believing fully that the past is the past. “A simple plot, but I know one thing/Good things are coming my way.” A fitting sentiment for a band that spent most of this record almost completely reinventing their musical outlook on life.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Mylo Xyloto $0
Hurts Like Heaven $1.50
Charlie Brown $1.50
Us Against the World $1
Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall $1.50
Major Minus $2
Princess of China $1
Up in Flames $.50
A Hopeful Message $0
Don’t Let It Break Your Heart $1.50
Up with the Birds $1
Chris Martin: Lead vocals, piano, organ
Jonny Buckland: Guitar, backing vocals
Will Champion: Drums, backing vocals
Guy Berryman: Bass, backing vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.