Home > Culture, Music, Reviews > Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto: Reconciling The Aesthetic With The Conceptual

Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto: Reconciling The Aesthetic With The Conceptual

With today’s release of Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay is now five albums into their career and anywhere from two to four albums into their reign as the world’s biggest rock band (to whatever extent that phrase can be applied to anyone but U2, who hold themselves to be the world’s biggest band even when they are not). Their last album, the ponderously titled Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends, was a new angle for the band, swapping the humourless, grandiose hymns that were beginning to dominate their tracklists for miniature suites, shaded lyrics, and relative sonic adventurism.

For a band whose artistic output and perceived identity is inextricable from the contours of its commercial branding (and whose isn’t in pop music these days?), this aesthetic/advertising shift promised to provide strong long-term sales potential. Aligning their new songs with a vague history of political upheaval and fuzzy revolutionary ideals (that was Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People emblazoned like a street slogan on the album cover, after all) was a canny move in appealing to a Western culture increasingly desirous of a sudden evening of the socioeconomic odds while simultaneously uncertain (and, indeed, potentially terrified) of the methods such a change might necessarily entail.

This move into quasi-cerebral territory was Viva La Vida’s underappreciated innovation. Coldplay was now more than a guilty pleasure without the guilt, more than a mass-consumable comfort-food band, a soft fuzzy blanket thrown cosily around the shoulders of the world. They remained all of these things, but they were now also Artists with Ideas. Blame Chris Martin’s restless self-conception or producer Brian Eno’s aesthetic influence (or both), but for a band whose limitations were more exposed than ever on the widely-panned soft-focus X&Y, the sense of internal renewal was welcome and perhaps necessary.

But where Viva La Vida adjusted Martin’s saccharine platitudes into indelible neologisms and swaddled them in a shimmering coat-of-many-colours, preliminary hints of Mylo Xyloto indicated that the band was poised to overindulge on the ideas side of things while mostly reconstituting the aural tapestry of their last effort without weaving many fresh patterns. The album’s stated inspirations included as graffiti and street art, the White Rose movement, and The Wire, while that dreaded term “concept album” was most definitely uttered. Although I do not share my PopMatters colleague Evan Sawdey’s unenthusiastic assessment of the record, those early promises do prove true enough.

The initial singles set the tone presciently enough. “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” is a reworking of not only Peter Allen’s “I Go To Rio” (seriously, you need to watch that video, the guy is hilariously frantic) but of Viva La Vida’s high-water-mark “Lovers in Japan” as well, with its non-specific invocation of barricades (“from underneath the rubble / sing a rebel song”) and gauzy emotional imagery (“heaven is inside”). Still, it’s a cracking bit of agit-pop lite, and the restraint shown in holding back Will Champion’s thundering drum eruption until the song’s final quarter demonstrates some artistic growth, anyway. If following release “Paradise” had considerably less affect with its tasteful strings and by-the-numbers swaying melody, then there was still a whole dozen songs or so to look forward to, and such blandness could be a mere blip on the radar.

Come closer, we will spray you with art!

But the radar is awash with a squadron’s worth of blips. “Hurts Like Heaven” never quite coalesces into something more substantial than a series of attractive sounds, a common enough issue here. The Rihanna collaboration “Princess of China” has had the shit produced out of it, 8-bit gaming samples and all. “Us Against the World” is simply dull. Even a genuine highlight like “Charlie Brown” can’t sustain its power for its entirety, as the glowing epic guitar bursts manufactured by Jonny Buckland are let down by Martin’s uninspired contrasting refrain.

Part of the issue at hand is that dreaded “concept”, which evidently boils down to an amorphous narrative of star-crossed lovers resisting the freedom deprivations of a technocratic dystopian state. Such a theme requires Coldplay to face down a musical influence that they’ve been skirting around for so long that most everyone has forgotten about it by noe: namely, Radiohead. The sort of alienation and paranoia necessary to fully explore such a set of ideas proves difficult for Martin in particular to conjure into his lyrics, while the feeling of redemptive hope is all too easily produced. The former element is essential to Radiohead’s impact, but they can inject the latter into the gloomy landscape when it is least expected. Coldplay is simply too positive, too eager, too invested in the production of joy to manifest the atmosphere of distrust and discordance that their chosen metaphors demand from them (witness the poorly-pitched “Major Minus” for a perfect illustration of this).

This is not completely a criticism, really. Even a seasoned pessimist like yours truly acknowledges the need for hope and progress, or at least the productive illusion of those things, and Coldplay’s continuing cultural currency during a time of unprecedented decline in the youth-market popularity of rock music shows that there remains an appetite for the grand, generous gestures of affirmation passed down the generations from the hippie-er corners of the 1960s counter-culture.

Indeed, when the band briefly jettisons the artistic pretensions and just unleashes the pretty (check “Up in Flames”, as Mr. Sawdey suggests), there’s practically nobody who can touch them. But indulging purely in the pretty was what necessitated their last album’s brainy course-correction, after all. Viva La Vida’s fine balance of aesthetics and conceptual integrity was what made it something special in Coldplay’s lexicon, and it’s what Mylo Xyloto, for all of its gorgeous sonic elements and well-meaning ideas, just barely lacks. Maybe this is further evidence of the band’s artistic evolution, though: embracing the true artist’s ability to craft material of inconsistent quality. By all appearances, Coldplay has learned to fail sometimes, and they could be a better band in the long run because of it.

Categories: Culture, Music, Reviews

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