Sunday, November 20, 2011

Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto (Track-by-Track Review)

Staking the Claim
Quick: you're one of the biggest bands in the world; you've garnered success over the last decade by writing sincere lyrics and making subtle changes to your soft-rock sound so that every album is noticeably different, but still unmistakably you; your last album was a major shift in sound and style that included vivid lyrics and instruments foreign to Western pop music, leaving some to marvel at your brilliance and others to wonder what they just wasted 45 minutes on; what are you going to do next?

Why, a paper-thin concept album influenced by electro-pop, of course! Coldplay's fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, is apparently the story of people (specifically two lovers) trying to survive in a hostile world (a completely original concept, of course), but good luck trying to glean that from the lyrics. The Dickens-inspired imagery from Viva La Vida is nowhere to be found on Mylo Xyloto; generic characters with no clear motivations abound, and the state of their world is never outlined, leaving the listeners who care to wonder why they should. In another jarring move, the uncommon instruments (and most of the interesting guitar work, for that matter) have been replaced by too much of producer Brian Eno's "enoxification" (an almost clever term, rendered unnecessary with the realization that Genesis coined one eerily similar nearly forty years ago).

Start Panning
Mylo Xyloto- A pointless, forgettable collection of pretty sounds. The only reason it was separated from the second track is because bands today think people would flip out at having to listen to an intro section that runs longer than ten seconds. 6/10 
Hurts Like Heaven- This is Coldplay as produced by Owl City: obnoxiously poppy with nothing substantive to say. Lyrics that might've potentially carried some meaning or poignancy are lost in the lack of subtlety that would've made them work on an earlier album, not to mention that Chris Martin's voice can barely be made out under the instruments, and the fact of the song's tempo (around 176, with the melody in the verses being mostly 16th notes) doesn't help any. At a normal four-minute length, it blazes by before it can become memorable. 6/10 
Paradise- Few things ruin a concept album for me like repeated themes and lyrics being revealed by the release of the first single (which I know this is not, but it uses the lyric "Every tear, a waterfall," which is an obvious reference to the lead single); it happened last year with A Thousand Suns, and it's happening here. It's like starting a Sherlock Holmes story with the arrest of the bad guy, it takes the fun out of finding these things for myself. The song tries to introduce one of the characters in its love story, but it does a pretty poor job of giving me any reason to connect with her. Who exactly is she? Why did she "expect the world"? I don't know, and apparently all Coldplay thinks I need to know is that she wants 'MORE!'. And here, we've officially hit Disney-knockoff territory. The string-based hook is great, and the melody is nice, but it gets buried in the choruses, which are otherwise the most enjoyable sections. 6/10 
Charlie Brown- .... Seriously? What assumptions am I supposed to make about that? Does the song have anything to do with Charlie Brown, or Peanuts in general? Is it supposed to suggest that the character is wishy-washy, or that he has a beagle who thinks he's a WWI flying ace? Here again, nothing concrete is offered about the character; vague, generic lyrics about wanting to stand out from an unspecified crowd. An unfortunately poor choice for the first track with music I legitimately enjoyed. Ignoring some Chipmunk background vocals at the beginning and bridge, the music is quite pretty; the guitar hook borders on anthemic, and almost makes up for the lyrics. 7/10
Us Against the World- Finally, a chance to sit back and breathe. Mainly an acoustic-guitar-and-vocals song, some organs are brought in near the end and gently swell, and drop out to let Martin finish what he started. It has the least memorable melody so far, but it stands out with Martin mostly singing in his lower register, lending the song a mellow atmosphere. The lyrics are unclear (though, by this point I've come to expect it) and don't really feel like they move the story forward or say anything significant about the characters, but for once the fact is forgivable. 6/10 
M.M.I.X.- Even more unnecessary than the opening track. Without anything remotely melodic to save it, it's just an uninteresting collage of windy sounds, until the last six seconds when it starts building up to the intro of "Teardrop". 3/10 
Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall- If the previous songs had been more like this, I would've enjoyed them a lot more. The echoing instrumentation creates a great atmosphere, the lyrics finally offer some kind of characterization, and both elements work with the melody and drumming to make the song sound as passionate and grand as its metaphoric title. 9/10 
Major Minus- The sporadic grungy guitar riffs feel like a missed opportunity; they hint at the possibility of an actually hard-rocking song, but instead shift back into the expected atmospheric territory. This one appears to be at least partly from the perspective of a villain, but it's as vague and cliche as any of the other tracks. The band feels the need evoke thoughts of Captain Hook in the lyric "Hear the crocodiles tickin' round the world"; are they saying that the villains are pirates, or is it just a general metaphor with no clear explanation? I'm beginning to think that writing in character isn't Martin's strong suit. 6/10 
UFO- Follows the pattern of "Us Against the World" by being nothing but acoustic guitars and singing until the middle, when this time strings are brought in. I would've thought that having some acoustic tracks would be a good break between sets of over-"enoxified" tracks, but it's actually annoying having to switch like this, especially when the acoustic tracks are as forgettable and out-of-place as these two. Thankfully, "UFO" is both short and lyrically spare, so the vague sentimentality here actually works, unlike longer songs that don't further the story or provide insight to the world or characters. 6/10 
Princess of China- I'm not crazy about Rihanna's songs, but she is definitely one of my favorite voices in pop music today. Unfortunately, she doesn't really get a chance to show off in this song; the one element Coldplay chooses to hold back on, and it's what would've been one of the best things about the album. The song goes through several sections that range from "loud, fuzzy and annoying" to stripped-down and pretty, and everything in between. It's a course of ideas that don't really work for me as a whole. 5/10 
Up In Flames- Any drama this song might've had is completely undermined by the unnecessary drumming; having such a basic beat looped in the background ruins the effect of just the piano and vocals. The only time it works is after the strings and guitar are brought in, but everything before that point would've been better off without it. 5/10 
A Hopeful Transmission- Reminds me of one of the instrumentals on I-Empire. It's pretty, and this time actually works really well as a transition into the next track. 7/10 
Don't Let It Break Your Heart- The melody is buried under the instrumentation (and the lyrics can barely be made out), there's no hook I can remember after listening to it five times in a row, and it's way too loud; I'm sure it's a crowd-pleaser when played live, but this isn't live. 5/10 
Up With the Birds- This is another that I wish the rest of the album had been more like; it opens with piano and vocals over a single held synth note that eventually fades out, and is replaced with a swell of synth and organ work that surrounds the vocals in a way reminiscent of "The Escapist" from Viva La Vida. From that point, guitars are brought in, and finish the second half of the song with a tenderness that was even missing from the acoustic numbers. 8/10

The Daily Haul
Partly influenced by graffitiMylo Xyloto is a colorful collage of experiences; unfortunately, Coldplay apparently forgot that pop music is not a visual medium. Mylo Xyloto fails as a concept album because nothing about its world is established concretely, the characters are barely half-baked, and the supposed story is almost non-existent (something that can be explained away, though not forgiven in my book, by the little fact that the album was intended to be a soundtrack). Musically, the band swaps their trademark drama and subtlety, which might've saved several of these songs, for over-produced atmospheres and unearned sentimentality.