Expectations can be a beast in the world of music criticism. Bands can blow up overnight thanks to blog reviews, even when they don’t have an album to promote – the live shows are that good. Then, when the album drops and it isn’t as magnificent as people expected, the band is dropped like a hot potato, while sites like Pitchfork leap to the next flavor of the week they can’t help hyping to death.
The dreaded sophomore slump isn’t so much named for a significant drop in quality or artistic vision, but rather for the frequent sales drop-off when fans don’t like a band’s second album as much as the one they worshiped maybe a year prior. Worse is the fate doled out to bands who initially sound like another popular act; they initially get a benefit from that comparison, only to have fans turn on them when their music either doesn’t follow closely enough in the footsteps of the iconic act, or conversely fails by following too closely with the original.
Such has been the fate of Coldplay, a band which clearly can’t win for losing.
If you were to spend too much time reading what the majority of the criticsphere has to say about Mylo Xyloto, the latest Coldplay album, you’d have to wonder if this one collection of songs happened to be the worst thing to happen to music since Kevin Federline’s rap abortion. “It’s a bit uplifting, but ultimately insipid,” was the write-up they received in the UK’s Observer, while the Guardian referred to the album as “standard issue Coldplay” in the perjorative, as though a band’s fifth album sounding like anything recorded prior to its release is somehow a brutal disservice to all appropriately cultured music fans.
It’s almost been a competition to see who can damn the album with the faintest praise. You see, what’s worse than a sophomore slump is the brutal crash to earth which comes when a band previously christened as a “hipster alternative to pop” decides to continue recording pop music long after the hipsters have decided to throw said band to the dogs.
I, for one, was never a particularly huge fan of Coldplay. “Yellow,” off their debut Parachutes, bored me to tears with its repetition and was doomed by radio overplay. And A Rush of Blood to the Head, the band’s sophomore effort, featured solid songs but frequently seemed to this critic as though the band was trying too hard to come up with songs to match what radio wanted from a follow-up to Parachutes. That, and the band was fighting to avoid becoming overly pretentious. While many have always lumped them in with the 90s brit-pop of Oasis and the rousing stadium rock of U2, with others clamoring for Chris Martin to follow in Thom Yorke’s avant-garde footsteps, the band was merely at the time trying to find its own voice and follow its own path.
Over the last eight or nine years, however, the band has grown on me. They’ve proven to be willing to push the envelope and try experiments with style, while sticking primarily to the world of pop music. While Radiohead saw a chance to go mainstream with the uber-success of OK Computer and then turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction, choosing to avoid pop at all costs, Coldplay wants to be the pop band everyone likes, with hooks that stick in your head and won’t leave, like tiny musical viruses. They finally found songs that led in that direction on Viva La Vida, which had a title signaling pretension even as the music was more mainstream than ever: I dare you to keep the tribal hook that is “Lost!” out of your head once it sneaks in.
NEXT: Why Mylo Xyloto is far from the abomination critics have made it seem.
After reading all the negative reviews for Mylo Xyloto, an album which I will admit is saddled by one of the most ridiculous titles ever, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that really what the band chooses to present here is a rational follow-up to Viva La Vida. Mylo Xyloto doesn’t stand up to a great deal of lyrical scrutiny, which is why so many critics have slashed at Martin’s throat by going after his lyrical failings.
But where the album shines is from a pure pop standpoint. “Hurts Like Heaven” is mindlessly catchy in a way few songs have been so far in 2011 – even when you hear yourself singing along to a line as inane as “You use your heart as a weapon but it hurts like heaven,” you’ve got to marvel at the tunefulness of the underlying melody, a melody which segues seamlessly into “Paradise,” the band’s seeming follow-up to “Lost!” which opens with strings and synths piling slowly upon each other until half a minute when the dark crunchy bass end comes into play. “She expected the world but it flew away from her reach,” Martin sings. “She ran away in her sleep into paradise!” The stuttering falsetto chorus – “Para-para-para-paradise!” — coupled with Martin’s “Oooh oooh oooh” harmonizing – turns the song into a barnstormer. If you can’t find something fun in this listening experience, you’re so jaded I don’t know that I want to know you.
The rest of the album is a joy to hear because it builds as a logical progression. The frantic desperation of “Charlie Brown” pumps up the energy just in time to drop off completely into the somber simplicity of “Us Against The World” (as apt a title as any on the album), which allows Martin to play with his more acoustic side, a la X&Y’s “Til Kingdom Come.”
“I just want to be there when the lightning strikes and the saints go marching in,” Martin sings, and it’s his mantra. Coldplay is here to be the world’s pop band even if the world isn’t ready to stand up to the hipsters and admit it wants a pop band.
We all say we want experimentation, raw creativity, explosions of avant-garde pretentiousness. But when push comes to shove, Coldplay will be there when we’re ready for something which strips all that away, leaving nothing but the pure, comforting essence of pop. It’s telling that “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” the band’s choice for lead single, is far from the most exceptional track on the album.
It comes down to expectations. If you see Coldplay as Radiohead-lite, you’ve already decided their music is something less than that of a band you already revere. As for the “it’s so sickly sweet” mantra, Coldplay’s music has always been something of an aural diabetic’s enemy … if you can’t tolerate sugary pop music, you’ve been coming to the wrong band and simply aren’t going to be able to judge the album for what it’s really offering. Mylo Xyloto doesn’t so much take Coldplay in new directions as it works to cement the band in the eyes of its fans as one firmly planted in the world of pop. Any experimentation which is to be done will be performed with the aim of pushing their music more fully into the world of pop.
In the end there’s the “relevance” debate. I, for one, don’t feel a band’s relevance depends on a willingness to completely reinvent its sound album to album. Coldplay succeeds in the same vein as journeymen pop acts like Train – when “Hey Soul Sister” became a smash hit this year, it wasn’t because Train sold its soul for a pop hit. They simply kept making albums the way they’d done since Train hit shelves in 1999, and eventually the pop radio world came back around and found them playable again. Coldplay is never going to be something for everyone. They’ll remain a punching bag album in, album out for critics who refuse to admit that there’s more than one way to experience music.
Sometimes all we want is pop music for pop music’s sake. To quote the band’s latest single: “I turn the music up, I’ve got my records on. I’ll shut the world outside until the lights come on.” Indeed. Coldplay’s latest may not be the brilliance everyone seems to have expected, but it’s a perfectly acceptable fifth album from a band clearly set on continuing to craft addictive pop confections long after their critics have put down their pens. If it’s not your cup of tea, there’s always another remix album of Radiohead’s King of Limbs you can dig into while venting about how bands like Coldplay don’t live up to expectations.