If having likeable personalities got artists to the top of year-end lists, Coldplay would regularly reside in the upper regions of those polls. Let’s face it, Chris Martin is very agreeable. But since that is in no way part of the criteria critics use to compile their lists, no matter how down to Earth Martin is, things are always a little more complicated for his band from a critical perspective. With Coldplay’s first two records, they found a way to exist as a fairly populist band while still receiving their fair share of accolades. They had their critics of course, mostly of the snobbier indie ilk; however, they were still a fairly fashionable group. And then, propelled by the massive success of “Clocks,” A Rush of Blood to the Head took off into the commercial stratosphere, and the backlash began.
Despite Coldplay’s best efforts to expand artistically with their last two records, the band’s critical standing dropped significantly. To a degree, it may be a little unfair. X&Y was fairly anemic but Viva La Vida was definitely a step in the right direction, even if there was something a little less special about it in comparison to A Rush of Blood. All the same, they have maintained their position as one of the few consistent sellers out there. This puts the band at somewhat of an artistic crossroads; they are expected to deliver on the promise of Viva, but it’s easy to get the feeling that few find them capable of rising to the challenge at this point in their career.
It’s almost as if they know they’re fighting a losing battle; rather than continue to expand the artier aspects of their last records, Coldplay pull a U2 circa All That You Can’t Leave Behind and set their sights on simply writing epic pop songs with their latest release Mylo Xyloto. As one might guess, the resulting album is a mixed bag. When things click, it’s great, but when they don’t, it’s largely forgettable. “Hurts Like Heaven,” despite its unfortunate title, is a hugely successful opener, displaying the driving force of which the band has long proven capable. Regrettably, it’s followed by the all too formulaic “Paradise,” which is a pleasant enough song, it just feels a bit too comfortable. This problem is echoed in the opening guitar riffs on “Charlie Brown” which sound like they could have surfaced on a dozen past Coldplay songs. X&Y found the band attempting to add some experimental flourishes to their milieu, but ultimately still sounded like a retread of past works. Much in the same way Mylo Xyloto sees the band transforming into the most pop version of Coldplay to date, but it is still far too familiar sounding. It’s a step backwards following Viva La Vida, which found the band stretching themselves in far more interesting ways.
Given that Chris Martin has been featured on a number of mainstream hip-hop songs, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to find a guest spot by Rihanna on the record. But lo and behold it does, as if they have come to terms with the fact that they are now a pop band through and through, not the artier (pop) band they were previously aspiring to be. This is furthered by the fact that there are several other spots on the record that could actually double as Rihanna songs (see the aforementioned “Paradise”). Mylo Xyloto‘s main trouble spots do not necessarily lie in this transition so much as the unevenness of the songwriting itself. There’s simply way to salvage a cringe-worthy chorus like the one donning “Up In Flames” (if Martin’s love is in fact up in flames, surely he can give the listener a less obvious solution than “We should put some water on“).
That said, there are plenty of instances on Mylo Xyloto that find the band excelling at their craft. “Don’t Let it Break Your Heart” finds the band storming the heavens. “Major Minus” may not help them shake their reputation as U2 Jr., as it comes across as a direct homage to Achtung Baby, but it’s still an exceptional song. The fact that it’s one of the album’s highlights is telling; few bands since U2 have been able to churn out worldwide hits with the same consistency as Coldplay. The band’s catalog will, in all likelihood never match their forebear’s in terms of quality, but their ability to speak to millions is in no danger of diminishing any time soon.
U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
The Kooks – Junk Of the Heart
Snow Patrol – Eyes Open