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Review: Coldplay, 'Mylo Xyloto' is a mixed bag of pain and pleasure
Can a new audience fall in love with Chris Martin falling in love with Rihanna?
It’s a bit of an optical illusion, saying that Coldplay’s new “Mylo Xyloto” runs 14 tracks long. Three of them are instrumental interludes and intros. One of them should have been trimmed. And one doesn’t belong on this album altogether.
Frontman Chris Martin took visual cues from graffiti and historical inspiration from places like Nazi-occupide Germany to inform his “let’s get out of this town” narrative, as restless boy meets troubled girl and they fly/float into destruction. It, of course, ends with the boy finding solace as he looks toward heaven and hope. Of course.
In this regard, the the British quartet have made a complete and fitting album, this their fifth full-length. “Mylo” comes on the heels of immensely, astronomically successful “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends” (2008), the first marriage of Chris Martin’s familiar melodies and Jonny Buckland’s friendly guitar lines with Brian Eno. The veteran producer helped turn some of the sad-sacking into arena-sized laments (see: “Lost?” vs. “Lost!”) and a four-on-the-floor rocker into one of the best-known singles from that year (the album’s “Viva La Vida”).
Here, Eno’s attributions of size and texture remain the same, though the triumph of each song is limited to Martin’s capability of coming up with a melody that sounds new and trustworthy. And with Martin, that’s always a hazy indefinable: with his strongest songs, I’m left dumbstruck that those melodies haven’t ever been written before, and I’m merely glad they finally made their way out. They’re so familiar, sing-songy, like the children’s stuff of “Princess of China” or the stupid-sticky sweetness of “Paradise. But then there's excellent “Charlie Brown,” which recalls Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down,” or “Hurts Like Heaven,” played with a body-shaking “Keep the Car Running” thump. (Buckland, on the other hand, owes fantastical royalties to the Edge for "Us Against the World.")
These aren't bad songs, though. And Martin most accomplished on the album’s earliest single, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” the titles and lyrics to which played second fiddle to the bagpipe-like guitar riff and – yes – the return of four-on-the-floor. And perhaps that is the most major downside to Martin’s melodic architecture: it comes at the expense of mediocre lyrics.
I’m not saying that abstraction is the enemy of all lyrics, but when the band is trying so hard to maintain a concept and narrative on “Mylo,” it could use better writing to do these enormous songs justice. Recurring themes of rivers and water, flames and light, the escape of dreaming are exchanged handily between each, but at the same time are unable to avoid cliché out of habit, lines like “streets [that] are made of gold” and “So whatever you do, don’t let go.” Then there’s teenaged allegories of half-baked wisdom like “Don't want to see another generation drop / I'd rather be a comma than a full stop” from “Every Teardrop” and “When you're tired of waiting so you just / Find that you never had to stop,” from desperate “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart.”
The latter is a good example of how the second half of this album is no match for its solid first, though final “Up With the Birds” alludes to some sound experimentation, some detachment from the traditional Coldplay sound. So does “Princess of China,” wildly so, in its R&B synths and the addition of Rihanna, the set’s sole guest, as she and Martin complain of the girl and boy’s crumbling romance. It’s one of my favorite tracks, though it would be better reserved for another album, or an EP that leaps away from this feel-good pop-rock orgy.
The gravity of this sad story is felt keenly in mumbler “U.F.O.” and “Up In Flames”; now, I certainly understand know why those songs are on there -- for the sake of the narrative -- but they're made up more of a generic sadness, more of a bummer, like preparing to do your taxes or finally get around to cleaning the litter box.
They’re met with peaks, however, out of “Charlie Brown,” the sound sample on which meets the bombast of “glowing in the dark” and “all the madness that occurs,” xylophones matching guitars, pianos bleating the passion that Martin’s smooth voice sometimes cannot. There’s also a lot to like on “Us Against the World,” like the blunt notes of the opening guitar riff and Martin’s reaching for those low, low notes.
Again, there’s a lot to like, and it happens most often when the band sounds like it’s greeting a brand new day (perhaps a “Beautiful Day”) rather than banging around for attention. Martin’s ballads interest me less and less, but the album can’t be carried on stadium refrains alone; Eno’s love of atmospherics helps save the marriage, even if the romance in “Mylo’s” story cannot be salvaged. Songs like “Major/Minor” can weigh it down, but there’s always that silver lining/heaven/hope metaphor “under cover of dark.”