Album Review: Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto [Parlophone]
Simply put, people love to hate on Coldplay. It’s so easy to do, and their massive popularity places a huge target on their backs. Most simply, their reputation has been harmed since the band’s inception because they’ve been marketed incorrectly. From their arrival courtesy of 2000’s “Parachutes”, they were painted as an alternative rock band that was like a more pleasant and marketable version of Radiohead. At the time, alt rock was actually developing in the opposite direction – rap rock became this huge phenomenon (that everyone would soon regret) and it was no surprise to hear something like Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” one minute and Coldplay’s “Yellow” the next. The closer reality was that Coldplay fit in perfectly with the adult contemporary audience, next to bands like Train and Barenaked Ladies. That of course would eventually catch on and open up a whole new realm for the band popularity-wise, yet their ties to alternative remained intact. Even into 2006 you could hear the immensely schmaltzy “Fix You” on rock stations, most of them hoping to use the band’s arena status as a springboard to more listeners. Those that like Coldplay might stick around and listen to this new Incubus track, even if they’ve never heard of Incubus before. Anyways, by painting Chris Martin and the boys in that harsher rock and roll light, they became singled out for a lack of masculinity in their sound. Cap it off with one of the more famous lines to come out of “The 40 Year Old Virgin”: “You know how I know you’re gay? You listen to Coldplay.” That about sums it up. You know who’s not complaining about all the vitriol hurled Coldplay’s direction? Coldplay. Their music keeps selling, and at this point they’re one of the main gauges as to the health of the music industry. If a Coldplay record doesn’t sell “x” number of copies, the industry is in trouble.
By now, most of us know what Coldplay is all about, and can make our own decisions as to their worth in our own lives. But there remains a small sector of people that continue to light a candle for the band, holding out hope that they’ll ditch the stadium-sized and emotionally universal melodies in favor of something obscure, pure and altogether challenging. Hiring Brian Eno to produce your album practically comes off as a statement of intent that you’re looking to get pushed creatively, and while their last record “Viva La Vida” certainly patterned things in the right direction, they never strayed too far from their path, either afraid to alienate too many fans or because their label wouldn’t let them. The positive is that Coldplay appear to know the fundamental flaw in their music and are working within the realm of reason to try and earn the respect of more intense music lovers. They want to be known less as a band that cranked out hit after hit and more as a band that made great albums. With that in mind, they once again entered the studio with Eno to try once again to find a sound that pleases both critics and fans. They exited with “Mylo Xyloto”, the title and artwork both of which bear an eerie similarity to U2’s 1993 Eno-produced record “Zooropa”. Given how much the songs on records like “A Rush of Blood to the Head” and “X&Y” seemed to invite direct comparisons with U2’s grandiosity, here was yet another parallel that felt par for the course from a band such as this. Ignoring the superficiality of it all though, this new album pulls one over on us by sonically shying away from the bombast and overt drama of Bono & Co. while still very much maintaining their status as a crowd-pleasing arena band. It would seem that there are many layers to this Coldplay onion, but take comfort that they’re not repeating themselves and only some of those layers will make you cry (tears of sadness or auditory pain, depending on personal tastes).
“Mylo Xyloto” is a name concocted of pure fiction, and it theoretically fits into a story concept that Coldplay appears to be wary of talking about. They want to emphasize that while the songs on the record tell a happy love story between two characters known as Mylo and Xyloto, this does not define the music itself, nor should you be placing close analysis on the lyrics searching for plot points. What the band is trying to say is that these songs are upbeat and passionate without that heavy layer of sap they’ve often been known to espouse. That, and maybe they started with this grandiose tale, put some effort into developing it out, and then kinda sorta forgot about it halfway through writing the record. You can’t really tell either way, it just seems odd how the concept is mentioned only in passing like a closely guarded secret or something they’re looking to shove under the rug. But upbeat love songs? That’s not being kept quiet, and with good reason. This is Coldplay’s happiest album to date, and that playful nature definitely makes it a little easier to stomach. Even a song you’d expect to be a crier, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”, goes for celebratory live show staple even as the dreadful lyrics and painful titular analogy threaten its very existence. At least the ballads like “Us Against the World” and “Up in Flames” come across as genuine and heartfelt rather than blatant and emotionally manipulative as has been the case on the band’s last two records. It’s a nice reminder that this band can still do lovely and intimate without completely overselling it.
For those that know and love Coldplay’s anthemic side, there’s plenty for you on “Mylo Xyloto” as well. Clearly the hope was for “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” to continue the band’s trend of strong singles, and while it has served its purpose, you get the feeling it’ll wind up being treated the same way as tracks like “In My Place” and “Trouble” have been – swept under the rug when the truly huge one hits. On “A Rush of Blood to the Head”, that was “Clocks”. On this record, it may be new single “Paradise”. It’s formula Coldplay, and its chorus is one of the easiest things in the world to remember and sing along to (complete with requisite “whoas”), even if you’ve never heard it before. The propulsion of opener “Hurts Like Heaven” screams with inspirational energy and a call to action, and it’s a remarkably well constructed track even if the platitudes don’t make any sense half the time. You can naturally expect it to be a future single as well. A pair of darker and quite frankly cooler tracks in the form of “Charlie Brown” and “Major Minus” bring a much more masculine energy to the band, something that this record needed to buck the feather-light touches of their last couple efforts. It would appear that Brian Eno has done this band quite a bit of good, his fignerprints throwing an interesting wrench into their otherwise big and rather plain sound. Some reverb here, some Auto-Tune there, a bit of ambience in between and Coldplay starts to come across as smart for the way they never fully repeat themselves and provide subtle auditory twists on the same framework. You definitely can’t call them stupid or even wholly untalented because while they’re not diving head first into rampant anti-commercial experimentalism, they’re making a conscious effort to keep you guessing while remaining true to their gigantic fan base.
Not every experiment that Coldplay tries works out for them. Ironically, the one track on “Mylo Xyloto” that feels like the band was aiming for a sure fire hit is the one track on the record that turns out the worst. Pretty obviously pointing to the idea that they’re not in any way an alternative rock band, Coldplay did a one-off collaboration with a pop star. The song is called “Princess of China”, and it features Rihanna on guest vocals. Here is where their label gets stars in their eyes, upon the mention of the words “crossover hit”. You’ve got the adult contemporary market covered, your Top 40 fans, and your hip hop and R&B fans. In other words, here’s a song that can introduce Coldplay to a whole new sector of people that might not have liked them before, and by parallel, the same goes for Rihanna. Here’s the thing – the collaboration feels forced. A number of Coldplay songs actually lend themselves to more beat-driven, club atmosphere, and you can hunt down some remixes to support that point, so the issue isn’t so much a formatting or “different worlds” one. It’s primarily that they secure a big name guest star in Rihanna and then barely do anything with her, vocally or otherwise. Not only that, but on a record that largely explores the band’s lighter, more playful side, this song feels like everyone is all business. The t-shirt and jeans vibe gets turned in for 4 minutes of suits and ties. It doesn’t ruin the overall feel of the record, nor does it sound entirely out of place, but it is a little bit of a head scratcher compared to the company it keeps. Undoubtedly you’ll be hearing “Princess of China” as a single before this album fades from memory, so here’s your advance warning to prepare accordingly.
Listening to “Mylo Xyloto” is a decent reminder that Coldplay’s career is marred with tragedy. Okay, so multi-million dollar bank accounts is less tragic for them and more tragic for those of us that feel they don’t deserve it, but haters can take some pleasure in knowing the band will likely never make a truly great record. Sure, they can write and have already written a ton of great pop songs so far in their careers, but in doing so they’ve had their legacy set out in front of them. They’re trapped in the world of arena rock and the mainstream pandering that requires, whether they like it or not. You can choose to believe that Coldplay wanted this, practically begged for it, and are now “living the dream”, but cursory examinations of both their interviews and their records seems to indicate that they’re in a constant struggle with their own identities. Specifically, they want to be Radiohead or R.E.M. or U2. They want a blank check to write whatever record they feel like writing, no matter how oddball or experimental, in the hopes of earning worldwide critical acclaim as well as the success to back it up. Few artists have found that magic combination where you can be artistically pure AND popular. Coldplay only has one of those things, and they’ve got too much to lose should they try and earn the other. So we get something only slightly left of center, about as much rebellion as they can afford without catching some odd stares from long time fans. Their label might have outright rejected “Mylo Xyloto” if it were a tougher listen. Knowing the existential dilemma this band is dealing with, it’s tough to punish them too harshly for attempting to innovate and keep people guessing. Here is yet another Coldplay album that is moderately different than everything that came before it. At this point it’s just nice to know they’re still trying.