"We're hated as a band can be," Coldplay singer Chris Martin recently told Entertainment Weekly during an interview laced with a squirming inferiority complex. Perhaps that's absurd and disingenuous coming from an arena band with seven Grammys and 40 million albums sold (and a headlining slot at last summer's Lollapalooza), but at least it indicated a band trying not to rest on laurels. Describing the band's new album, "Mylo Xyloto" (Capitol) , out today, Martin continued: "It's an effort to redefine what a Coldplay record is. Who knows if anyone will like it? But we definitely can't be accused of standing still and relying on the same formula."
Actually, that accusation is still easy and applicable -- and not necessarily a bad thing.
Martin may not hear it, or want to after a decade of hit records, but Coldplay has a clear formula, a good one. The band's repeated successes with several sweet anthems wouldn't remain so durable without a reliable template. "Mylo Xyloto" (MY-lo ZY-luh-to) is as bright and colorful as its graffiti cover art, but like each previous album it also merely massages the Coldplay feel-good formula, adorning it with different sounds and styles, this time courtesy of returning producer Brian Eno.
Eno has an impressive track record with certain artists (David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads), but he's not King Midas -- not everything he touches turns to a creative breakthrough. When he began collaborating in the early '70s, his production was credited on albums as "Enossification"; in the "Mylo" credits, it's "Enoxification." That doesn't necessarily mean it's become noxious. For "Mylo," it means wrapping most of these recordings in gauze, blurring the crisp edges, shooting them through the sonic equivalent of "soft focus." Enoxification here simply keeps the sound interesting enough -- the percolating loops underneath "Charlie Brown," for instance, or the swaying synth-strings on the single "Paradise" -- so that listeners won't completely confuse the band's widescreen balladry with its last round of sing-along hits.
The worst moments on "Mylo Xyloto," in fact, are when the band tries something drastically different. The obvious aping of decade-old jagged Radiohead guitar tracks on "Major Minus" are definitely not a plus, and the worn-out Massive Attack beat underneath "Up in Flames" fails to ignite. The ballyhooed Rihanna appearance on "Princess of China" is not as jarring as you might expect (only in the sense that she's clearly such a better singer than Martin), and the gimmick distracts from an otherwise dull melody.
But the album is front-loaded with a heap of winning tunes, including the smooth, gliding electro-pop of "Hurts Like Heaven," maybe the band's speediest tempo yet, and the IMAX production of "Charlie Brown." That latter song is where the album's loose concept slips into focus, a lyrical leaning toward "lost boys" and "scarecrow dreams" that crystallizes in "Us Against the World," a moving ballad that occasionally dips too low for Martin's vocal register. To his and Eno's credit, the song isn't transposed; they let him scrape the bottom of the bass clef and blow the note twice, making his outpouring of romantic dreams sound all the more sincere -- again. Fifteen years later, he can still finesse that tried-and-true pop moment. It's a mastery that's not always easy to love but, so far, difficult to truly hate.