Friday, November 04, 2011

Mylo Xyloto (and a Coldplay retrospective)

I suppose I consider myself a Coldplay fan, though my road to Coldplay fandom is definitely the one less traveled by.

There are two sorts of Coldplay fans.  The first one listened to Parachutes on repeat back in 2000, proclaiming it brilliant, and A Rush of Blood to the Head on repeat back in 2002, proclaiming it slightly less inspired but still wonderful.  2005 brought X&Y, and with it, a disliked new direction and a hated mainstream popularity.  Fans of early Coldplay became Not Fans of later Coldplay, and even though Viva la Vida is inarguably the band's greatest achievement musically, critically, and commercially, they were long finished with the band by 2008.

Fortunately for Coldplay, the second sort of fan decided to show up circa Viva la Vida.  This fan probably heard "Speed of Sound" a couple dozen times on the radio between May and October 2005--with maybe the occasional "Talk" or "Fix You" thrown in for good measure--and forgot about Coldplay, only be be inundated again three years later.  "Viva la Vida" pervaded every aspect of media and pop culture for a summer, and it attracted an entirely new cohort of Coldplay devotees.  For this second sort of fan, "Violet Hill" is more quintessentially Coldplay than "Clocks," and "Yellow" is a color, not a song.

Where was I in all of this?  I was a bit young to know what Parachutes was when it was released, but by Rush of Blood, I'd caught on to the band's existence.  The difference between me and the cool-kid early adopters was that I didn't actually like Rush of Blood, and I liked Parachutes even less when I went back and listened to it.  It's not that I actively disliked it; early Coldplay simply occupies the "inoffensive but uninteresting" musical domain alongside electronica and classic rock.

It's a little odd, then, how eager I was to grab X&Y in 2005, and even more odd how much I liked it.  I might be the only person on the planet who liked X&Y; everyone else had either abandoned Coldplay or not caught on to them yet.  But even it lost its charm after a few years, and I was decidedly less interested in keeping up with the band immediately prior to Viva la Vida.  I didn't know there was a new Coldplay album, and I didn't know that this "Viva la Vida" song I'd been bombarded with was theirs.  But my mom vouched for the album, and I picked it up and enjoyed just about every thing about it. "Viva la Vida" is a fine song, and its success in bringing new fans to Coldplay is a testament to its quality, but Viva la Vida succeeds on so many levels beyond just its title track that it's clearly the greatest thing the band has ever done.

But now it's 2011, and Coldplay has painted itself into a bit of a corner.  They've released four albums, each consistently--even exponentially--better than the last.  Is it fair to expect the fifth album to outdo Viva la Vida by the same margin that Viva la Vida outdid X&Y?  Is it even possible?  Viva la Vida is a legitimate magnum opus, the sort of album that's a ceiling on achievement for virtually any band out there.  Realistically, the best that Coldplay fans could expect was that they would move laterally along that ceiling for their fifth album, giving us an album that's equally good but that explores different musical territory.

And for a brief, shining moment, it looked like we might get it.  The second single from the still-mysterious Mylo Xyloto was a song called "Paradise," and we knew Coldplay had it in them.  Forget "Viva la Vida"--forget Viva la Vida, for that matter; this was clearly the the greatest thing the band has ever done.  "Paradise" is not only the best song in Coldplay's discography, it's the greatest thing to have come out of the pop/rock mainstream this decade, and it's an example to the rest of the genre what contemporary mainstream pop/rock can and ought to be.  There's lavish orchestration, but not for a second does it sound overproduced; the secret is that the production leaves Chris Martin's voice alone and lets him just sing, displaying both his trademark falsetto and his increasingly competent tenor.  There are interesting melodic devices: major/minor inversions, octave jumps, modal and pentatonic themes.  And the hook draws you in, and despite being played a few too many times, never actually overstays its welcome.

Unfortunately--perhaps predictably--the rest of Mylo Xyloto can't quite live up to "Paradise".  Little of it is actually bad, instead creating a confused jumble of strange decisions.  Two of the strangest are the concept and the ventures into some decidedly 2011 genres.

Apparently Mylo Xyloto is in fact a concept album, an urban-dystopian love story.  While songs like "Us Against the World" and especially "Major Minus" make the 1984 influence all too clear, that the album is supposed to tell a coherent story can really only be deduced once you know the concept is supposed to be there.  There are clues here and there, and points to Coldplay for giving the story a happy ending, but like Halloween costumes, the best concept albums are the ones that require the least explanation.

Aside from the (supposed) concept, Mylo Xyloto is at its weirdest (but not necessarily its worst) when it tries to stray too far from Coldplay and too much into "things you would hear on the radio in 2011".  "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" sounds like it wants to be a collaboration with either Lady Gaga (judging from its first thirty seconds of dance-poppiness) or Rebecca Black ("I turn the music up, I got my records on/ I shut the world outside until the lights come on") but is a pretty decent song once you forgive it that.  "Princess of China" sounds like it should be is a collaboration with Rihanna, which is one of the most perplexing musical crossovers of the century, but again not exactly bad if you're into that sort of thing.

The worst moments of the album have to be its interspersed ballads, which hit more like musical roadblocks than emotional weights.  "Us Against the World" in particular is an unfortunate flirtation of Martin with the dregs of his vocal register, and "Up With the Birds" is as blandly generic a way to end the album as could probably be conceived.

It's not all bad outside "Paradise": both "Hurts Like Heaven" and "Charlie Brown" are fine songs.  Incidentally, they're the songs that come immediately before and immediately after "Paradise," which brings up an interesting point.  Does "Paradise" polarize the rest of the album; does it make the mediocre songs seem relatively better and the tepid to bad songs seem relatively worse?  The best way to answer this question is to make your very own Mylo Xyloto remix:

  1. Make a playlist that contains all of the songs on Mylo Xyloto.
  2. Delete "Paradise".
  3. Listen to the playlist.

How does it sound?  There's little you don't want to listen to, but more importantly, there's little to nothing that gets you excited about it.

Mylo Xyloto proves that Coldplay has come a long way in the last decade.  They're making sounds, exploring styles, and covering entirely different musical spectra than they would have dared to in the early 2000s.  However, in some sort of ironic way, Mylo Xyloto is the most Parachutes-y album since Parachutes.  It has more definitely good tracks and more definitely bad tracks, but the bulk of the album is back to "inoffensive but uninteresting," familiar ground indeed for Coldplay.

Currently listening: "New Frame of Mind," Kathryn Calder

1 comment:

Kierston said...

My two cents...
Parachutes was ok, but "Yellow" and "Don't Panic" were the only really good ones. I think the novelty of the band made this album good.

A Rush of Blood to the Head I absolutely adore, there are maybe two songs I could lose, but the rest is pure genius. "Clocks" is brilliant and is my ringtone, and when I hear The Scientist I want to cry.

With this experience, my hopes were unattainably high for X&Y. I tried to love it... but it fell just a little short for me. There are some great songs though, and if it had come out before A Rush of Blood I might have had a different opinion.

This brings us to Viva la Vida. Now, it might be because I was no longer buying CDs, was trying to graduate and start grad school, or that I was disappointed with X&Y, but I just wasn't excited about this one. It took me a while to listen to the whole thing, but it's grown on me. Now I can say it really is excellent, but two years ago I wouldn't have. I have to say that "Viva la Vida" showed me that Coldplay could actually write interesting lyrics along with strong music, and I was/am definitely obsessed with that song. It gets second best to A Rush. It might have better music, but A Rush holds a special place in my heart.

Given my long history with Coldplay, and my need to allow albums to grow on me, I'm reserving judgement for Mylo Xyoto. "Paradise" is awesome, and reminds me of what I love about "Viva la Vida."

In summary, A Rush of Blood to the Head holds an insurmountable place in my musical life, and will never be topped by another Coldplay album, simply because for me it was the first real introduction to the novelty of Coldplay. However, if I had lived my life differently, Viva La Vida would probably be top. That would be a sad life indeed though.

This is the most I think I've ever written about music... I really do like Coldplay! Also, I don't give a crap about how popular they are, I love them and they deserve to make money, hehe.