A far sight better than either its ridiculous title or Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall, the lackluster EP that preceded it, would suggest, Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto perpetuates at least some of the progressive influence that Brian Eno brought to their last album,Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Coldplay's biggest selling point has always been their gift for indelible, outsized melodies, and the band pushes that element on Mylo Xyloto in some effectively unexpected, innovative directions. Where Coldplay struggles, however, is in writing lyrics that have the same evocative qualities as their music, and it's there that Mylo Xyloto underwhelms.
Frontman Chris Martin claims the album tells the story of two lovers in a dystopian, urban future, but he's never been particularly good at writing lyrics with any meaningful specificity. To that end, whatever narrative the album is supposed to relay is muddled by Martin's tendency toward statements of sweeping generality. As a songwriter, he's a total cipher: Lines like "Written with a marker on a factory sign/I struggle with the feeling that my life isn't mine" on "Hurts Like Heaven" lack any sense of urgency or emotional heft, while the couplet that forms the lyrical hook of "Us Against the World" falls utterly flat and ignores basic syntax: "Through chaos as it swirls/It's us against the world."
This is hardly a new problem for Martin and his bandmates: Over the course of their five albums, Coldplay has repeatedly proven that a song that could mean absolutely anything is a song that means nothing at all. "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall" is an utterly empty-headed anthem, and "Up With the Birds" aims for minimalism but ends up being so slight that it evaporates into the ether at what is allegedly the conclusion of the album's narrative arc. Songs like "Princess of China," which has an actual story to tell and tells it in a concise and purposeful way, and "Up in Flames," which conveys emotions that, if simple, are recognizably human, both draw the shortcomings of the rest of the album into sharp relief.
On Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, Eno helped Coldplay experiment meaningfully with their sonic palette, and, fortunately, they've retained that willingness to push themselves on Mylo Xyloto. That goes a long way toward salvaging the album. "Major Minus," the standout track from the Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall EP, remains impressive for its unexpected use of an electric guitar fill and wordless chorus, while single "Paradise" conveys a greater sense of momentum and narrative in its dynamic arrangement than in its lyrics.
The album's strongest track, "Princess of China," samples "Takk…" by Sigur Rós, another band known for emphasizing form over content. With its thundering four-four beat and icy synths foregrounded in the mix, the song is a definite departure for Coldplay, but it makes perfect sense when Rihanna takes the mic in the second verse. Splitting the difference between "Violet Hill" and "Umbrella," "Princess of China" suggests that Coldplay's brand of arena-ready pop is actually effective when they remember to write an actual hook or an actual narrative to go along with a fantastic melody. While the melodies on Mylo Xyloto are some of the strongest and most memorable in the band's catalogue, it's the shortcomings in their lyrics that keep Coldplay from packing the kind of emotional wallop their sound really demands.