Sunday, March 6, 2016

Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto

I don’t know if Coldplay ever really stood a chance with me. My brother has hated them forever, and I was around so much distaste for the band right from their early days that I’m not so sure I ever got to form my own opinion. X&Y, widely regarded as their worst album, was the first record of theirs that I listened to in full, and my reaction to that one was lukewarm: I liked a few songs, hated some others, and thought everything in between was harmless, but fairly forgettable. Their endless U2-posturing on 2008’s Viva la Vida (right down to the producer) irritated me a lot. There were good songs somewhere underneath all the anthemic guitar lines and studio gloss, but I don’t think the band ever quite got them out in those arrangements. And Chris Martin’s voice has never been the most powerful instrument: a more talented vocalist can take his songs to heights this band has only dreamed of (take Frank Ocean’s yearning, nostalgic rewrite of “Strawberry Swing” from Vida).

Another thought that has crossed my mind is that this band was shoehorned into their “next U2” stereotype so early that they were never really even allowed time to find their own sound. Their more quiet moments, like the gorgeous “Til Kingdom Come” from X&Y (written originally for the late Johnny Cash) or “Amsterdam,” the fantastic closer from their 2002 record A Rush of Blood to the Head, hint at what could have been a great folk-pop band, and Martin’s voice, with it’s lilting falsetto, strong low range and distinctive tone, would have fit that style much better than it fits the faux-U2 style anthems that this band has become so universally known for. Alas, the band has never gone in that direction, and their latest, entitled Mylo Xyloto, does little to change that

It’s generally the quieter moments that thrive on Mylo Xyloto as well, like the sweeping ballad “Us Against the World” or the surprisingly intimate “U.F.O.,” but those are unlikely to be the songs that grab the most attention here. That’s not to say they’re the only songs worth anything though. Opener “Hurts Like Heaven” starts things off was an electronica rush, building into a well structured pop song that’s not really governed by a traditional verse/chorus format. As a matter of fact, Coldplay eschew that format a lot on this record, which results in songs that generally feel a lot less poppy or arena-ready than the material that littered their previous records. The curious thing is that they still produce the album like it really is a big, shiny pop record. Case in point are the singles, like “Paradise,” a relatively bland pop song with titanic production value, or “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” a sonic feast hampered somewhat by Martin’s weak lyrics.

Martin has never been a great lyricist either, but some of his lines from previous albums rang well due to their simplicity and honesty. He tries to go deeper here, but ends up falling further back, like on the bizarre “Princess of China,” with its much discussed Rihanna guest spot. The song is a bundle of lyrical clichés and a weak melody, and Rihanna seems to be there just to generate buzz. The pop princess, who’s become the go-to girl for guest spots thanks to her contributions to Eminem and Kanye West songs, sounds completely out of place here. Her job description on those songs was to sing the hooky chorus repeatedly, but “Princess” really doesn’t have a hook and Rihanna doesn’t really add anything, so the song just ends up falling flat. Still, it’s better than something like “Major/Minus,” a thoroughly worthless piece of filler that I have skipped nearly every single time through.

Mylo Xyloto doesn’t always ring hollow though: “Charlie Brown” and the penultimate “Don’t Let it Break Your Heart” might be the best and most effortless U2 imitating this band has done, “Up in Flames” is a decent piece of filler, strengthened by it’s evocative production, and “Up With the Birds” is a surprisingly compelling finale, a two-parter that builds from a gorgeously subdued opening section into a powerful conclusion and a brilliant summation of everything this album is. The problem is, the album just isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Here, Coldplay seem halfway between revisiting their pre-Vida days and trying to make their own Achtung Baby. Sonically, the album bears a lot of similarities to that 1991 U2 classic, an album that melded the barriers of rock and pop so well that it’s still almost indescribably good. While Mylo Xyloto never even approaches the heights that album reached, at its best moments, it feels like a band that isn’t content to merely bask in their own success, and that’s a nice thing to see, considering that they’re probably the biggest act to come out of the last decade. It’s disappointing that the songs that will see the most success are actually the album’s weak points, but overall, Mylo Xyloto is a decent album from a band who I’ve never really liked before. In that case, die hard fans should be over the moon about it.

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