Coldplay's follow-up to the most commercially successful album of 2008, "Viva la Vida," offers proof positive that there is an elusive "other" element in all magnificent rock records. In other words, even if you have all the pieces of the puzzle -- the massive hooks, the heart-on-sleeve passion and yearning, the rather brilliant production, the falsetto-laced codas, the hope-tinged lyrics -- you are not guaranteed to come up with "The Joshua Tree" when all of those pieces are put together.
"Mylo Xyloto" is a very good album. This wouldn't represent any sort of failure were it not for the fact that it so clearly wants to be a GREAT album. It's a thoroughly enjoyable collection of short stories that yearns to be its generation's greatest novel.
The pressure is on Coldplay, of course. When you sell a gazillion albums, you are no longer competing with your indie-rock heroes or your underground music anti-heroes. You're competing with the pop music at the top of the charts. That most of that pop music is recycled, cliche-ridden dross not worth the digital space it occupies on your or anyone else's cloud is a problem for Coldplay. If the band wasn't one of the biggest on the planet, it wouldn't be able to snag Rihanna for a duet. And it would be better off for it.
Loosely based on a continuous concept -- something to do with love conquering all in a distressingly authoritarian future-world where individuality and expression are frowned upon and life is nothing if not grim -- "Mylo" is a beautiful artifact, until you start picking away at it to discover what's beneath the pretty wrapping paper. What you find ain't much, conceptwise. This has been done much better elsewhere -- from David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" to Rush's "2112" to Radiohead's "OK Computer" to Green Day's "21st Century Breakdown," although the last of these is nowhere near as interesting, on a strictly musical level.
But if we push the whole concept thing to the side, what we have is a strong set of inter-connected songs, some cool segues, and a whole lot of singer/pianist Chris Martin trying to keep his over-stuffed heart from jumping straight out of his rib cage.
We also get stirring guitar work from Jon Buckland, master of the post-Edge "part-writing" style of musical assemblage. Buckland is in top form, though there is often so much going on in the arrangements -- strings, burbling synths, glockenspiel, multitracked "oohs" and "aaahs" -- that some of his parts lose their ooomph. "Mylo" is beautifully mixed, but that can be a weakness -- you end up begging for something to break through the compressed structure to announce itself and demand the freedom the narrator strives for in every single lyric.
After the first of three musical vignettes scattered throughout the record, "Hurts Like Heaven" launches us into Coldplay's universe of anthemic pop. Martin's voice is certainly strong, even if his lyrics are cliche-ridden -- "You use your heart as a weapon/ And it hurts like heaven," he sings, unwisely, as Buckland blends acoustic and various electric guitar figures throughout the busy, bubbling mix.
"Paradise" follows, heralded by a string-based theme that ties it directly to "Viva la Vida" and "Lost" from the last album, and it works well because its melody is simple and direct. The song introduces the female lead of the concept, a disappointed teenage dreamer, it appears, but that's beside the point. What matters is the arena-sized chorus and the Bono-esque "Whoa-oh-oh-ooooh" that punctuates it.
"Charlie Brown" offers the male counterpoint's perspective. "Stole a key/ Took a car downtown where the lost boys meet/ Took a car downtown and took what they offered me," sings Martin, as Buckland once again works his multitracked magic, and producer Brian Eno makes all of it sound much more significant than it actually is. Classic Coldplay, then.
The most interesting music on "Mylo" is delivered during the segue bits. "Mylo Xyloto," "M.M.I.X" and "A Hopeful Transmission" find Coldplay and Eno feeling free to get good and weird for under 40 seconds at a time. Much like U2's last album, "No Line on the Horizon," the listener is left with the frustrating realization that this wonderful weirdness is treated rather condescendingly by the artists themselves -- as if, you know, it's cool to muck about a little here and there, but then it's time to get back to the business of "Making the grand pop music statement!" Which may explain the absolute travesty that is the duet with Rihanna, known as "Princess of China." Please, guys. Never again.
"Mylo" is certainly not representative of a step backward for Coldplay. It's a good album -- a very good album. But if the band could stop trying so damn hard to keep up with pop royalty, it is certainly capable of creating something truly transcendent. Until that happens, there's always the "Mylo Xyloto" world tour to look forward to.