In a recent interview, Tom Waits mentioned that while recording music, “You have to work with people that know when to trick you.”
Coldplay pays lip service to the element of surprise on its fifth studio album, “Mylo Xyloto” (Capitol), by enlisting the ultimate trickster, Brian Eno, who has brought out the very best in past collaborators such as Talking Heads, U2 and David Bowie by banishing business-as-usual habits.
Eno, who also worked with the British quartet on its 2008 album, “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends,” is credited with “enoxification” and, more tangibly, with cowriting every song on “Mylo Xyloto.” His presence can be felt in the details, the way songs evoke paintings with their depth of field and subtle blends of color.
But Coldplay has a formula, and formula prevails on “Mylo Xyloto” despite Eno’s presence. It will ensure a certain number of hits and considerable commercial radio airplay, but those who thought of a Coldplay-Eno collaboration as a ticket to a reinvention – as U2 accomplished with “Achtung Baby” in 1991 or Talking Heads with “Remain in Light” in 1980 under Eno’s guidance – will be disappointed.
Innovation really isn’t the point with Coldplay – at least not anymore. In what has otherwise been a fairly desultory era for mainstream rock, the foursome has sold 40 million albums by thinking big. Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion come across as rock stars of the most modest, self-deprecating sort, and they aspire to write universal, feel-good songs: from their breakthrough “Yellow” in 2000 through “Clocks,” “Fix You” and “Viva La Vida,” they’ve reliably dished out durable radio singles.
Though the band has tinkered with new sounds (the art-rock moves of “X&Y” in 2005 and the world-music accents in “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”), “Mylo Xyloto” is essentially a blueprint for concert sing-alongs – rock’s sensitive-guy answer to the Black Eyed Peas’ party-till-you-pass-out celebration.
The new album takes its cues from the ‘70s Bruce Springsteen, who wrote about blue-collar kids trying to escape their unpromising pasts, and finding that in many cases it’s possible. The music was operatic, brimming with archetypal characters and dramatic payoffs. “Mylo Xyloto” is a second-hand version of those tales, short on the specifics and sharp images that defined Springsteen’s songs, but longer on bombastic pop hooks and optimism. The album’s title characters are in love and on the run. It’s “just us against the world,” trying to survive “all the madness” and “the chaos as it swirls.” They are street urchins brimming with “spray-can soul” who “from underneath the rubble sing a rebel song.”
The clumsy narrative is supported by two kinds of songs – sparse ballads and enormo-anthems, linked by three short instrumentals that give the album a sense of cohesion, one track bleeding into the next (a classic Eno-esque touch). After a brief intro, the band throws three big punches designed to shake the walls in “Hurts Like Heaven,” “Paradise” and “Charlie Brown,” packed with “whoah-oh! vocal hooks, falsetto singing, cascading guitars, sumptuous keyboards, drums that crash songs back into overdrive after sudden dives into near-silence. You’ll recognize a lot of the moves from other records: Not just by Springsteen, but by the Killers, Kings of Leon or Arcade Fire doing their takes on Springsteen, plus the chest-thumping uplift of U2 and the haunted yearning of Radiohead. They even appropriate Big Country’s bagpipes-as-guitars sound from the ‘80s on “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.”
Coldplay strategically deploys a handful of ballads for contrast: “Us Against the World,” “U.F.O.,” “Up in Flames.” Martin milks these smaller, more intimate moments, the world-weary troubadour imploring a lover, God or both to “lift up this blindfold (and) let me see again.” The one detour is an awkward, seemingly pasted-together collaboration with hooks-specialist Rihanna, who punches up “Princess of China” alongside Martin amid the album’s most emphatic rhythms and a beehive of swooping, buzzing synthesizers.
As for the desperate lovers Mylo and Xyloto, it all works out in the end -- and how could it not in a Chris Martin story? A last-minute surprise would’ve been completely out of character for an album that plays it this safe.