Right at the start of Coldplay’s new album, you’re reminded that they’re permanently stuck between commercial considerations and purity of artistic vision. Mylo Xyloto opens up with an instrumental that bridges immediately into the first song, “Hurts Like Heaven,” so it seems the tracks should be one. Instead, they’re separated — presumably so “Hurts Like Heaven” will work better as a single without 40 seconds of wordless twinkle. That song and opening single “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” are the best on the album — giant, ascendant pop creations that weave multiple hooks and harmonizing together, ready for the floor or the listening station. The dance floor remixes are surely forthcoming.
A lot of this album is tailor made for Big Feelings. There’s little subtlety or obfuscation on this album — it’s usually blindingly obvious what the band is trying to get at. “Up in Flames” is about a relationship that goes up in flames; “Paradise” is about expecting paradise in your life and being disappointed. The arena-ready hooks hit you over the head, and if you’re predisposed to this brand of grandiose sentimentality, it’s hard to not be sucked in even as you’re rolling your eyes. By the time Rihanna pops up for a guest vocal on “Princess of China,” destined for a multi-million dollar music video, you’ve made your decision whether or not to surrender to the band’s sentimentality. If this sounds like a cynical reading, it’s not — there’s plenty of triumphant, explosive musical moments that feel genuinely inspirational and affecting in the album. But they’re in line with the Coldplay we know and accept — they’re unlikely to change your mind if your opinions are already set and fixed.
Chris Martin’s voice is stuck halfway between husk and coo — like a limper, more English Nick Drake, in perpetual risk of falling off some imaginary ledge. It’s surprising how effective it is, actually. He’s able to sell his band without sounding affected at all, soaring over the mix like some reassuring angel. It’s hard not to see Martin’s real-life persona behind his lyrics — the good-humored, self-deprecating character who calls his band less talented than Radiohead, but more attractive. The believability of this type of G.O.O.P.-y emoting usually depends on whether you think the band is bullshitting you with earnestness, but Martin straddles the line perfectly. He believes in his music, but he’s not an asshole about it. Self-important front men of the world, take note.
That’s a nice defense against the more pointed criticism that they lack anything resembling edge or subversion, usually the hallmarks of our Big Rock Bands. What’s wrong with being a pop Radiohead, after all? If there’s any niggling disappointment over this record, it’s that the band’s lyrics remain as gooey as ever. Producer Brian Eno has guided them towards more expansive instrumentation and bombastic atmosphere, but the center of the music often lacks real heaviness. It takes unimpeachable confidence to write a song called “Every Tear Is A Waterfall,” but at the same time, yikes. Still, Coldplay remain an eminently listenable, catchy band — no small feat for a band this big. If it seems like they could be doing more, that says more about our expectations of how a band should grow rather than any of their merits.