By David M. Goldstein | 31 October 2011
What helps me continue to be a Coldplay fan is my belief that Chris Martin’s band is truly one of a dying breed: an honest to goodness, mainstream stadium rock group that came of age entirely in the ‘00s. It’s as if my inner fourteen year-old is grinning, racing home on a Monday afternoon to watch the episode of 120 Minutes he taped the night before, to check in on Pearl Jam and U2 and Rush and Live (Throwin’ Copper , yo) and once again stay sold on the transformative power of these favorite bands filling and then rocking arenas. Granted, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers (and I suppose Radiohead) today play similarly sized venues, but all of their best material was relegated to the Clinton-administration.
Chris Martin may be a rarer front man than he’s given credit for: he’s adept at writing Brit rock anthems in his sleep, but he’s also self-aware of his flagrant Bono-ness enough to have Brian Eno on board for 2008’s Viva La Vida, a well-timed career reboot which regained Coldplay much of the goodwill they squandered on 2005 career nadir X/Y. Eno added some much-needed atmosphere and got Coldplay into the habit of (successfully) ripping off bands with far more credibility than themselves (e.g., My Bloody Valentine, Graceland -era Paul Simon, and of course the aforementioned U2); the result was arguably the strongest album of their career.
So now here’s this thing called Mylo Xyloto, and peep this: it’s a concept album! Something about lovers trapped in a Dystopia and forced to vent their frustrations via modern art—but learning more would require thorough analysis of Chris Martin’s lyrics, which no one should ever attempt. There’s 35-second interludes given individual track status; song titles crop up as lyrics in other songs; and all of the tracks segue together. It’s adorable.
And why mess with a good thing? So, Brian Eno is back on board, but so is Arcade Fire guru Markus Dravs, as well as Rik Simpson and Daniel Green. All are credited with production, meaning that Mylo Xyloto (MX from here on out) was touched by as many producers as Coldplay has band members. It shows: many of these songs feel Euro-synthed to within an inch of their lives, often with electronic drums that simply sound strange coming from Will Champion’s usually pedestrian kit. First single “Paradise,” an otherwise by-the-book piece of Martin melodrama, nearly buckles under the weight of fake strings and what could be a leftover Timbo beat from ’07 which even those mooks in One Republic wouldn’t touch. Still, it’s catchy, and Johnny Buckland rends rivers of existential angst out of his one-note guitar solos in the song’s closing minute. It’s also indicative of an album where too often the tail wags the production dog. As much has been made of Rhianna getting a verse on “Princess of China,” it’s easily the most skippable track here, less a “song” than a cavalcade of stuttering synth noises amongst which she’s helplessly lost. It may be impossible to break down MX’s division of labor, Dravs did enable Win Butler and Co. to get a little freaky with the church organ on Neon Bible (2007), so maybe he’s the guy hell bent on drowning out Johnny Buckland’s Edge-isms with electronic keys?
To Coldplay’s credit, amidst the over-production they still manage to reach their quota of flag-waving festival rock songs, some of which could be considered career highlights. Seriously. Provided you’re already preconditioned to enjoy this sort of thing, there’s little to dislike in MX‘s first half. “Hurts Like Heaven” hurtles out of the gate by melding Arcade Fire’s forward propulsion to goofy, New Wave positivity, and the heavy drama of “Paradise” is chased by “Charlie Brown,” the requisite Chris Martin sunburst that makes up for a lack of memorable vocals by providing Coldplay’s most hummable riff to date. (It will absolutely kill on stage.) “Us Against the World” is unexciting acoustic balladry in which Martin actually references “Saints” that do indeed “go marching in,” but it only serves to set up the hippie drum circle of “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” a completely ridiculous song, basically an Animal Collective single with a more charismatic singer and shittier lyrics.
The remainder of MX isn’t so much bad as simply less inspired, more of the production team having too much sway at Coldplay’s expense. “Major Minus”: token burst of enjoyable weirdness on every Coldplay record (think “A Whisper” or “42”). You might even be able to convince your friends that minimalist ballad “Up in Flames” is a James Blake jam—that is if you have friends. But the record ends poorly, with a pointless “Charlie Brown” re-write in “Don’t Let it Break Your Heart,” and Chris Martin really shouldn’t make a habit of biting Leonard Cohen like he does on “Up With the Birds.” What’s more, all the album’s conceptual “interludes” actually leave everything seeming disjointed, like three better EPs cobbled together with a few weak squirts of mortar.
But I like knowing that unabashedly populist bands like Coldplay still exist. I like that reassurance. Crafting festival-rock anthems without a shred of irony is harder than it looks, and I credit Coldplay for doing so while at least attempting something akin to “artistic innovation.” Not as good as Grohl, but better than Kiedis, with Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay have at least released the second best arena rock album of 2011. They’re miles away from Parachutes (2000) now, for sure. And that’s something we should all welcome.