Coldplay was pretty happy with 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, an album that for all intensive purposes served as an expansion pack to the far-superior stylistic reset they did with 2008’s Viva La Vida, turning piano recitals into multi-colored, heavily textured new sounds that still kept their warm pop aesthetic right in the forefront. Although Mylo produced hits, none of ’em were as big as Viva‘s world conquering epics, and despite selling out arenas, the hushed critical response to Chris Martin’s wildly-varying lyric quality no doubt wore on the band.
So, after a lot of touring and relative silence, the first big preview of new Coldplay music, “Atlas” (from the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack), was adequate at best: another piano ballad that went through the motions and struck all the poses, but didn’t do much in terms of actual emotional impact, its pretty placid chorus not doing much aside from looping over the same tropes we’ve heard from the band many a time before. Some thought the band’s stature was enough to garner them an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately for Coldplay’s chances, the Academy actually heard the song.
Thus, the unexpected release of “Midnight” — which was just barely barely confirmed as a song from their new album Ghost Stories — is a bit surprising. Built around a composition by current critical fave Jon Hopkins, this mooody electro track takes a few vocal cues from Bon Iver, but the propulsive backbeat which kicks in around the 3:00 mark shows that the band might be hewing closer to modern Radiohead territory than anything else.
By keeping things in such a minimal environment, the chords themselves being kept simple and direct, the main melody shifts coming from Martin’s voice, there’s a great sense of drama that can be felt in the song’s skeletal frame. Outside of the earnest ballads, Coldplay was never a band to play with negative space a whole lot, but the fact that they do it in such spectacular fashion is something worth noting. It’s still pop — there’s a definite sense of melody that can be heard in the clicking pianos that chirp and that pulsating, shifting bass pad — but it covers territory occupied more by indie-leaning electronic acts more than the FM radio groups that Coldplay normally rubs shoulders with. Martin’s words are elliptical, talking about things swelling, lighting occurring, and lights being left on. There’s no immediate center to the lyrics, but after Mylo‘s frequent attempts of Martin trying too hard, such elliptical notions not only marks an about-face for him, but also makes for surprisingly pointed listening.
In short, “Midnight” is great. Whether or not it’s a one-off or a true indicator of their new direction remains to be seen. However, for a group that so obviously wants to be taken seriously, a move towards something this chilly, this moody, and this evocative actually may do exactly what they set out to do.
We’re all ears, guys. The larger question now is: what else you got?