Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Album Review: Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto (4/5)

Coldplay has always been a band that demands, or rather asks politely, to be liked. Since their 2000 debut, their subsequent albums have all taken slightly different directions, but none have strayed too far from an essential formula of guitar- and piano-driven pop songs that shoot for and generally succeed in delivering uplift and optimism with the occasional “woe is me” ballad thrown in to keep those hearts bleeding.

Mylo Xyloto’s twist is that it’s a concept album--albeit one that Green Day already covered--a story of two young lovers, Mylo and Xyloto, trying to find their way in a dystopian world. There’s also some business about New York graffiti and Nazi-era, Anti-Hitler German intellectuals. Even HBO's (brilliant series) The Wire is reportedly an inspiration. Not really sure how it all adds up, as I didn’t get a digital booklet to let me parse the lyrics this time. Regardless, it certainly adds up to tuneful, uplifting, U2-loving pop/rock, which is all anyone is really hoping for from a Coldplay album in the first place.

“Hurts Like Heaven” is a killer opening track bursting with the kind of bright energy that proclaims something great is coming. This is the first of several songs with a strong electronic presence, during which even Chris Martin’s vocals get more than their usual processing.

The happy feeling continues through current single “Paradise” and “Charlie Brown,” both of which are typical big-sounding Coldplay pop songs. “Paradise” is particularly pop-oriented, with its beat veering ever so close to hip-hop, recalling OneRepublic’s similar flirtation when it teamed up with Timbaland. It goes for the big sonic build, overlaying synthesizers, strings, hand claps and, during the chorus, the backing choir. “Charlie Brown,” a track many have named as a standout, has Asian touches not unlike Viva La Vida’s “Life in Technicolor” or “Lovers in Japan.”

The album concept comes on strong for “Us Against the World,” the album’s first slower song. I appreciate that Martin’s vocal is pretty clean on this song, and the production, which tends to be overbearing throughout, has a lighter touch here. It’s almost folksy, in a Bon Iver-ish way.

Another instrumental signals a segue to the album’s next segment. Whether its title “M.M.I.X.” is a musical reference, “2009,” or some reference to the characters name is unclear, but the interlude is over before you’ve had time to overthink it, pushing quickly into summer hit “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.” It’s certainly welcome to this party, an anthemic tune that sits nicely alongside the band’s greatest hits. I love how the bass really picks up at 1:40. “Major Minus” follows. It’s the most traditional rock arrangement on the album and thus sounds more like U2 than anything here. I find its comparatively restrained production refreshing, hearkening back to A Rush of Blood to the Head days, and wish more of the album sounded like this.

This section of the album is a real mishmash of sounds. After the uplift of “Teardrop” and the darker rock sound of “Minus” comes the softly acoustic almost interlude “U.F.O.,” followed by what will surely be the most divisive track on the album, the aforementioned Rihanna collaboration. “Princess of China” is awash in distorted synths, burying Chris and RiRi in layers of electronic sounds. It’s not a bad song, but it’s overproduced. It’s certainly better than the song that follows, “Up in Flames,” which is the album’s low point. Nothing much happens in the song. It’s a middling hip-hop beat, piano and a soft vocal, with a tune that just seems to repeat over and over.

Last stretch of the album brings two welcome tracks. “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” may be traditional Coldplay stadium filler, but it’s not an album filler, pumping up the album’s sound at just the right point. “Up with the Birds” is gentler, switching gears from airy synths and strings to more muscular guitar halfway through, an effective transition that ends the album on a strong note.

All this wanting to be loved feels like it goes just a little too far on this album. It’s like the nerdy ninth grader who suddenly decides he can be cool by dressing like and hanging out with the cool kids. Thus Coldplay dress their songs in so of-the-moment synths and hip-hop beats and even spends some time with the coolest pop kid of the moment, Ms. Rihanna. They even nod to last year’s coolest rock album, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, evoking that group’s shimmery multi-instrument layering on Mylo’s opening instrumental. Still at its core, this is definitely a Coldplay album, and while not their strongest work, it’s a welcome addition to the family.

Best: Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall, Hurts Like Heaven, Major Minus, Paradise, Don’t Let It Break Your Heart

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