Blandness, predictability, and mildly sweet mediocrity are not in and of themselves offensive. In fact, sometimes these traits are exactly what’s needed.
Think of the humble rice pudding. By no means has this dessert ever unduly excited anyone, but once in a rare while—say, the day after a bout of acid reflux, or when you’re sick and miserable but have to eat something—it’s exactly what you want. What’s more, the more generic, the better. No need for a culinary mastermind like Graham Elliott to deconstruct and reinvent the dish; just scoop out some store-bought, consume it with minimal thought, and forget about it until the next occasion when the craving or the need occurs.
Coldplay is, of course, the rice pudding. And Brian Eno, for the second time ’round with these goobers, is the pitifully wasted genius whose “enhancements” only join with the other pretensions to lessen the minor pleasures.
Eno may be the most consistently inventive, inspiring, and challenging producer in rock, but his ability to push a band out of its comfort zone and into brave new sonic worlds nonetheless relies on the group having something going for it besides a comfort zone. That is to say, Eno could help guide Talking Heads, David Bowie, Devo, and even Coldplay’s heroes U2 to some of their best work because all of them already had some imagination and the courage to try and possibly fail. He didn’t do much at all to improve the pleasant jangle of James, nor has he done a thing beyond adding a few gauzy synthesizer textures to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008) or the new Mylo Xyloto, about which the only superlative that can be employed is that that’s one of the worst titles ever.
Said title combines the names of two characters falling in love in an oppressive urban environment, bandleader Chris Martin says. Yes, this is a concept album, because crafting a simple pop album isn’t enough for these fellas. Like U2, they want to fill arenas, make boatloads of cash, change the world, and be hailed as great artistes while doing it. For a moment, circa the krautrock-flavored X&Y (2005), it seemed as if they might actually be capable of more than oh-so-pleasant, meekly crooned, gently tinkling, piano-enhanced arena-pop ditties (i.e., “Clocks”). That moment passed quickly. And now, thanks to their overweening ambitions, there are fewer and fewer of those little pop pleasures and more…
What, exactly? Songs such as “Paradise,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” never really grate or annoy—unless you listen to the lyrics. (Choose your favorite howler: “Life goes on and gets so heavy/The wheel bends the butterfly”; “Took a car downtown to where the lost boys meet/I took a car downtown and took what they offered me”; “I turn the music up, I got my records on/From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song/Don’t want to see another generation drop/I’d rather be a comma than a full stop,” etc., etc.) But they never really please or fulfill, either, no matter how modest your expectations.
Even in the realm of rice puddings, some are better than others.
Star rating for Mylo Xyloto: 1 star.
(P.S. Coldplay debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard pop albums chart yesterday with 447,000 copies sold, an astounding number at a point when, allegedly, "nobody buys records anymore." But a lot of people like rice pudding, even when it's not the best.)