A Spark in a Sea of Grey
“We wanted to have something that didn’t mean anything else. We made up ‘Xyloto’. When we Googled it, nothing came up. Mylo Xyloto doesn’t bring any meaning with it, so in that sense we’re beginning with a clean slate. Together, the words will mean what we make them mean with this music.”
—Chris Martin, USA Today (October 21, 2011)
You know that you’ve fully engrained yourself into the very fabric of modern pop culture when you find yourself getting sued. A lot.
In the story mentioned at the top of this review, Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin says that he was warned: as soon as he had a chart-topping single, the litigation would come, and, ‘lo and behold, following the group scoring a trans-Atlantic Number One with what is arguably their best song to this point, “Viva la Vida”, out comes rock guitarist Joe Satriani claiming that the band deliberately lifted a melody from his lesser-known track “If I Could Fly”. This suit raised a lot of eyebrows. After all, Coldplay stealing from another musician? That simply does not compute. It’d certainly be an odd move for them, given their reputation as being some of the nicest guys in all of rock music, but shortly after Satriani’s filing, another music icon—Cat Stevens—publicly decried the fact that the exact same song stole portions from his own “Foreigner Suite”. The result? The former case was settled out of court, the latter never fully materialized.
Even as accusations of plagiarism rose once again following the summer release of Mylo Xyloto‘s lead single “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”, all of the faux-legal drama seemed to actually fuel anticipation for the band’s new album, which was already shaping up to be nothing less than a pop culture event (heck, they even managed to score a Rihanna cameo for it). After all, the group’s last disc was a key step in its development, finally jettisoning the piano recitals that weighed so heavily on the deservedly derided X&Y in exchange for an album filled with more textures, colors, and ideas than anything Coldplay had done prior. It was not a perfect disc, but Viva la Vida showed them reinventing themselves at just the right time, challenging themselves to do better instead of merely resting on their laurels (which producer Brian Eno should get some definite credit for). It wasn’t long before all of this hard work translated into Grammy wins, sold-out arena tours, and enough goodwill between artist and label for the band to put out a live album for free—which proved to be a much-appreciated move, as fans downloaded the album 3.5 million times in less than four days.
Yet with all of those landmarks and milestones behind them, Mylo Xyloto does not carry the same level of expectations or pressure that Viva la Vida did. Following the critical beatdown the band received with X&Y (added with the well-known fact that Martin reads a lot of his reviews), the band pretty much had to re-invent themselves and that’s exactly what they did, going from melancholy songsmiths to arena-pop gods in the course of a single disc (well, two discs if you count the greatly underappreciated Prospekt’s March EP). Now, three years later, Mylo Xyloto proves to be a direct sequel to Viva la Vida, filled with the same sparkly keyboards, dramatic interludes, and sing-along choruses that made Viva such a hit. Although fans may be willing to embrace more of the same, the cold hard truth is that for all of its structural similarities, Mylo Xyloto brings absolutely nothing new to the table.
Things start off grand enough, with a grand trio of top-notch songs: the synth-heavy “Hurts Like Heaven”, the grower of a single “Paradise”, and the fan-favorite-in-waiting “Charlie Brown”. Although these tracks share a lot of the same sonic territory, they absolutely crackle with energy, “Charlie Brown” taking the cake in terms of quality, as it shows the band having stumbled upon one of those great, instantly recognizable melodies that sounds better with each reiteration—who would’ve thought a guitar and a xylophone could sound so epic when paired together? “Paradise”, meanwhile, is clearly designed to ignite live shows with its ready-to-go crowd-chant of a chorus, the roots of which can be traced back to their holiday non-album single “Christmas Lights”.
Yet the second that the band launches into “Us Against the World”, things begin to drastically fall apart. The group slows down the tempo as they crank up the melodrama, crafting a sleepy lullaby of a ballad that actually loses any sense of impact it could have because of its production work, the hazy synths and light reverb trapping the melody underneath a warm, gauzy blanket of sound. Although the band managed to scrape by with songs such as these on X&Y, what really kills Mylo‘s momentum is the lyrics. Although Martin went into Viva la Vida promising that his lyrics would get better (and in cases like that album’s title track, they very much did), here he strains himself trying to be poignant, relying so heavily on tired clichés that they actually sound painful to hear:
The tightrope that I’m walkin’
Just sways and ties
The Devil as he’s talkin’
With those angels’ eyes
And I just want to be there
When the lightning strikes
And the saints go marching in
That mishmash is only one example of Martin’s fumbled sense of wordplay. In the course of that same song, he goes from issuing phrases that are nothing short of cringe-worthy (“Like a river to a raindrop / I lost a friend”) to uttering lines as brilliant as they are syntactically questionable (“My drunken as a Daniel in a lion’s den”). The same thing happens on “Major Minus”, where the band’s paranoid Radiohead imitation is peppered with Orwellian chants both literate (“Hear the crocodiles ticking around the world!”) and hackneyed (“They got one eye watching you / One eye on what you do / So be careful who it is you’re talking to”).
This, in short, is Mylo Xyloto‘s major problem: amidst all of the Day-Glo sonic wizardry that the band’s army of producers are able to conjure, Martin doesn’t actually have a lot to say. He tucks a great image (“a spark in a sea of gray”) into yet another song about birds, wastes a solid Rihanna contribution (and a great electric guitar wash by Jonny Buckland) to talk about a dysfunctional relationship in the blandest of terms (“Once upon a time, we fell apart”), and spends a majority of “Paradise” talking about a “girl” who “expected the world” before noting that “Life goes on / It gets so heavy” (deep, man). Although no one has ever claimed that Martin is a terribly inventive lyricist, Mylo Xyloto unfortunately shows him at his poetic nadir.
Despite this—and the endlessly repeated imagery of teardrops turning into waterfalls and things flying away—there’s one moment of absolute crystal-clear beauty on the album, and it’s the moment when Martin actually says as little as he can. “Up in Flames” is a gorgeous little number constructed out of a simple backbeat, minimal piano chords, and very little else. Martin pares his words down to the essential, and although his phrases are very generic (“I only know I’m wrong / Now I know it’s gone”), the simple setting they’re presented in actually gives his words weight, showing that for all of Mylo‘s widescreen pyrotechnics, sometimes all you need to set things right is just a basic, simple song. It’s a gorgeous little gem that’s so entrancing you almost completely miss the track’s regrettable final line, wherein Martin’s final plea towards reconciling a relationship that’s “up in flames” is as follows: “Could we pour some water on?”
A few years from now—and separated from its endless hype—we will all look back and see Mylo Xyloto for exactly what it is: a direct sequel to Viva la Vida. Unfortunately, this is the kind of sequel where nothing new is introduced, no great revelations are to be had, and the things that made the previous installment so great are nowhere to be found. Viva la Vida was an unquestionably great step forward for the band—it’s just a shame to discover that Mylo Xyloto is another step back.