Coldplay: Mylo Xyloto – review

Coldplay had billed their new album as a move into pop. But Alexis Petridis hears the same old band underneath

Coldplay's followup to 2008's biggest-selling album is a curious thing. On the one hand, it aims for a certain ponderous gravitas. Mylo Xyloto is a concept album complete with a short filmic overture, interstitial instrumental pieces called things like A Hopeful Transmission, and recurring lyrical themes, set, as concept albums are legally obliged to be, in a futuristic dystopia: you can tell it's a futuristic dystopia because one of the interstitial instrumentals, M.M.I.X., is helpfully bedecked with the sound of burbling computers. An oppressive regime wields power: "They got one eye watching you, so be careful who it is you're talking to." But the kids – it literally talks about "the kids" – are rising up against them, inspired by the power of rock'n'roll: "I turn the music up, I got my records on/ From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song." Among the kids' ranks lurk the two curiously named lovers of the album's title. "The ending is very powerful, and about love conquering all," explained drummer Will Champion, clearly a stranger to the spoiler alert. Without wishing to join the motley crew of petitioners who've cried plagiarism at Coldplay over the years, the plot sounds a bit familiar. It's We Will Soft Rock You.

On the other hand, however, the album's sound involves a surprising embrace of chart pop. Whereas its predecessor took its title from a painting by Frida Kahlo, Mylo Xyloto has apparently been inspired by another leading surrealist, their work also characterised by the use of dramatic symbolism to communicate extremes of human suffering: Justin Bieber. "We have Justin Bieber and Adele to compete with and they're much younger than us. We have to have the energy to put as much effort into our work as they do," Chris Martin recently explained, a comment that rather leads you to picture agonised band meetings spent trying to work out how to equal the skyscraping artistic heights that will surely be scaled by Bieber's forthcoming album Under the Mistletoe, which not only features him doing that one about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but also a version of Little Drummer Boy featuring Busta Rhymes. Lofty aspirations indeed, but then what is rock music if not an arena in which we dare to dream?

As with the claims about the Brian Eno-driven avant-garde inclinations of Viva la Vida, you quickly get the feeling that Coldplay might have been laying it on a bit thick about the pop influence on Mylo Xyloto. A lot of it just sounds like standard-issue Coldplay, replete with echoing guitars, woah-oh choruses and vocals that signify high drama by slipping into falsetto. But when they do deploy the icy rave synthesisers and basslines of pop R&B amid the acoustic guitars and weepy strings – as on Paradise and Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall – it genuinely adds a bit of freshness to a formulaic sound. There's something faintly baffling about that, given that the icy rave synthesisers and basslines of pop R&B sound pretty formulaic themselves. Perhaps it has to do with the deftness with which Coldplay weave the electronics around their sound. It certainly never sounds awkward, even when Rihanna shows up on Princess of China, which might actually be the best thing here: a gleaming, tidily done bit of electro-pop. Or perhaps it's because whatever accusations you could heave at Coldplay, an inability to write hook-laden melodies isn't really among them, and a hook-laden melody is a movable feast.

Mylo Xyloto's problem lies with the concept itself. For one thing, the storyline is flimsy. It doesn't stand a chance when pitted against Chris Martin's fearsome arsenal of cliches, generalities and motivational-poster platitudes: over the course of the album, the listener is left in no doubt that that streets aren't really paved with gold, that life goes on and that the sun must set to rise. Worse, it forces him to write in character, as a wild, feral youth who "stole a key, took a car downtown where the lost boys meet … we'll run riot," as he sings on Charlie Brown. You have to give him credit for stepping outside his comfort zone and playing against type. But equally, there's no getting around the fact that Chris Martin makes for a profoundly unconvincing feral youth: it feels like remaking The Wild One with Phillip Schofield in the lead role.
Still, he might reasonably respond that no one buys a Coldplay album in the hope of finding brilliantly incisive lyrics, or indeed an accurate portrayal of untamable adolescent rebellion. They want other things, and they're all present and correct here. Despite Martin's worries, the chances of their vast fanbase suddenly defecting – to Justin Bieber or anyone else – seem pretty slender.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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