Coldplay are in an enviable position, though you'd never know it if you read too much criticism. Arguably the largest rock band in the world, with contemporaries like U2 and Radiohead often mentioned in the same festival-sized breath, each release is more or less guaranteed to do things that other bands want to do; sell records, get play, be talked about, and earn them another seven-figure touring cycle (each). Tackling such ubiquitous topics as love and loss, and attempting to bridge into bombastic politics, the band has left few bits of studio ground untrod. After the critical and commercial success of Rush Of Blood To The Head, they could have released a lazy album of Coldplay-ish tunes every two years and continue to cash in for decades (and some might think that's what they did). But they've not gone the easy route, instead opting to try and build on their legacy, always with lofty claims. X&Y was not, as promised, the greatest rock record ever written, but it did give us "Fix You," one of the best modern examples of the "festival closer." Viva La Vida was not, as advertised (and dressed as), a revolutionary soundtrack, but like its predecessor, full of enjoyable, epic choruses and flustered sing-alongs.
Chris Martin has repeatedly said Mylo Xyloto is a made up name with a purpose, to sound like nothing the band—or anyone else for that matter—has done before. Tricky ground for Coldplay, who have been accused of plagiarism before and again borrow one of their most poignant new riffs from another recording (this time with the proper credit given at least). Add another potentially derisive angle in the idea of "the concept album", a loose narrative following Mylo through his romance with an unnamed woman who he winds up leaving, and this project is beginning to sound like the misguided noodling of a star too big to fail. But all the muck aside, the songs themselves play out in traditional Coldplay fashion, with fanfare and gravity, and the criticisms of those who find the band fruity or too bombastic seem to melt away with the fantasy of confetti and blown-out arenas. Coldplay knows their target demo.
The beginning of the album ("Mylo Xyloto" into "Hurts Like Heaven") is an explosion of the band's nu-electronic sound, a mix of digital bliss and Coldplay's signature soft-rock guitar. Other highlights include the powerful (borrowed) riff at the helm of "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall," the midtempo bangers "Charlie Brown" and "Paradise" (both pretty standard leg-stompers for Martin and co.) There isn't much to be said for the generic lyrics and groan inducing slant idioms ("hurts like heaven, oof") but the music is still loud, and it still feels good. I'd throw "Princess of China" in there as well if it wasn't so hard to get over the dumb name and the superfluous Rihanna guest vocals (seriously, she adds nothing, and this track should have been like five clicks faster).
The softer tracks ("U.F.O", "Us Against The World") are all pleasant and emotive and work to keep the tempo of the record balanced, but they don't quite stack up to Martin's already epic piano ballad work. They move the narrative forward, but don't feel memorable in the context of their discography.
There's an awkward/amazing moment in the album's generally fluffy contour, where Coldplay turns to a sort of alternative style more reminiscent of their "Cemeteries Of London" swagger on Viva, or perhaps even earlier. "Major/Minus" calls back to the paranoid narrative of songs like "Spies," with a few strange images ("Crocodiles ticking") to add to the energy of the beat (glitchy and intoxicating). It is dangerously close to their best Lite FM Radiohead impression. If I had to pick a Coldplay I like best, it's the pseudo-weird "Rush Of Blood" manic-depressive Coldplay, and although it's through the prism of Mylo Xyloto and it's playfulness, that mode makes a brief appearance here.
Fewer and fewer acts command a large amount of people with such force, and that's the real value of this band and their work. For a second, remove the critical angle and the compulsion to nitpick the "concept album" and just listen to a few of the stronger melodic passages, "Teardrop", "Charlie Brown", "Don't Let It Break Your Heart", and imagine a stadium of people jumping up and down in a cathartic melee as Chris Martin raises his arms and encourages a complete loss of pretense. That's the Coldplay we anticipate with every new album, and that's the Coldplay we've got here, for the most part. Songs meant for large groups of people, echoing on the rafters, both humanizing and larger than the limits of the mind's eye.