The band's fifth full-length packs a few surprises, though, of course, it's still a Coldplay record
The Hallmark Card was invented in 1923 by Joyce C. Hall, but it has reached its apogee in the hands of the band Coldplay, which has, since its first album in 2000, conducted a massive international helicopter drop of Feel Better cards on music listeners of the world. You will recognize the familiar components a Sonic Hallmark. Here is the first page, the acknowledgement of hardship. You've tried your best but didn't succeed. The confusion never stops. You thought that it was over, that everything was lost. Then, ah, the satisfying turn: the symbols crash, the strings ignite. I will fix you. You are home. Everything's not lost.
Mylo Xyloto is the band's newest album, and what a neon bundle of soothing Hallmarks it is. In a recent interview, Chris Martin explained (maybe jokingly?) that the name "Xyloto" derives from his belief that music comes from everywhere, including one's feet, as if one had xylophone-toes, and so, Xylophone + Toe = Xyloto. Mylo, he said, is just "a great name." This interview offered an instructive, if not definitive, theory of Coldplay. Either their lyrics are come by in a manner that is ridiculous, or else they are random. How else could one explain "every teardrop is a waterfall" (what?), or "I coulda been a princess, you'd be a king" (that's not how royal marriage works), "life goes on, it gets so heavy" (oh my God), and "even if your aims are shadows, still we never gonna part" (okay, now we're just marking time with syllables).
Coldplay can get away with greeting-card lyrics for the same reason that greeting cards can. They are writing for a customer that is interested in feelings, not words. And one feeling in particular: Uplift.
Mylo Xyloto isn't a new Coldplay, just a new costume for the band's satisfying 4/4 melodies, arpeggio hooks, and uplift. The band's debut, Parachutes, was an acoustic, autumnal gem, and, for many people, their finest record. Rush of Blood to the Head added more instruments. X&Y topped it off with angel choirs and synthy strings. Viva La Vida wisely pulled back from those indulgences and forced the band to write new songs rather than release the old chord progressions with different orchestras.
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The band's fifth studio album is their most unabashed pop performance, and it contains some legitimate surprises. "Hurts Like Heaven" is the fastest song Coldplay has ever written, and one of the best—a bright, skippy tune that seems more like Phoenix than the band that gave you "The Scientist." Rihanna sounds not entirely out of place in "Princess Of China," an R&B experiment that makes for a satisfying car jam, if a longshot club hit. Other songs are more in line with the band's vintage stadium ballads. "Charlie Brown" launches with the kind of looping guitar hook that's custom-made to keep looping in your head after the track ends. The penultimate tune, "Don't Let It Break Your Heart," is a wall of sound etched with a simple, proficient melody. (I've arleady expressed approval for the album's first two singles, "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall" and "Paradise").
But mixed into these meticulously crafted, if inconsistently executed, songs are some inexplicable clunkers. "Major Minus" is mid-'90s Radiohead ten years after anybody stopped trying to do that sort of thing. "U.F.O" is a simple guitar melody that forgot the melody. "Up in Flames" sounds like a cover of an Usher B-side, and that's putting things rather nicely. Two months ago, I wrote that Chris Martin was incapable of writing an abstruse melody. Writing a boring melody, however, remains firmly within his capacity.
But enough fussiness. The upshot is that Mylo Xyloto is surprisingly fun and listenable as all heck. Other critics will have something piquant to say about the band's reliance on circular guitar hooks and unhealthy habit of beginning songs on an "oooh" vowel. But looking for something terribly new and fresh on a Coldplay album is, to crib a proverb, asking for better bread than can be made of wheat. Or rather, better greeting cards than can be made of card stock. Just shut up and feel better.