Author Archives: Martin Lukk

Coldplay, “Mylo Xyloto”

"Mylo Xyloto" (Parlophone, 2011)

A week after the release of their fifth studio album, “Mylo Xyloto” (pronounced “MY-lo ZY-letoe”), Coldplay’s official Twitter feed read the following: “Worldwide highest first week iTunes sales ever—of any artist. #1 album in 21 countries so far.” At this point, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Coldplay might just be the biggest band in the world today. And they know it. For better or for worse, this year’s “Mylo Xylolto” sounds exactly like the kind of album that Earth’s most popular band might create.

As a great admirer of Coldplay’s early work on releases like 2000’s “Parachutes” (including international hits like “Yellow,”) or 2002’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” with tracks like “Clocks” and “The Scientist,” seeing the bands development through the course of the last decade has been more than a little bit worrying. The band’s third release “X&Y” (2005) began a gradual departure from the personal and intimate, guitar and piano based, slightly rough-around-the-edges alternative rock of their earlier creations, toward more heavily studio-produced, mass market music, in the style of radio friendly hit singles like “Speed of Sound” and “Fix You.”

The massively commercially successful “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends” from 2008 saw the band adapt “French revolutionary” costumes on their world tour and the album’s single “Viva la Vida” thoroughly monopolized the radio waves all summer long. With “Mylo Xyloto,” the Coldplay boys have arrived, musically, at a strikingly different place than when they were strumming their guitars in little pubs around Liverpool ten years ago. Coldplay’s development over the years has felt as if they were a gang of blue-eyed country boys breaking out of their molds, and small town quiet comfort, running off to see the world. In this way, the band’s albums have subsequently gotten bigger, more expansive and appealing to increasing scores of audiences. With “Mylo Xyloto,” Coldplay has come full circle, reaching the Big City, with no sign of turning back.

Influenced by “old school American graffiti and the White Rose Movement,” as the band itself claims, “Mylo Xyloto” has largely faded the acoustic guitars and piano—which were so prominent in earlier times—to the background, behind layers of synths and drum beats, making it easily Coldplay’s most danceable, club-friendly album. It also presents itself as a concept album, with the album’s lyrics following a love story taking place within the context of a kind of oppressive, Orwellian society, complete with the paranoia and fear of surveillance described in songs like “Major Minus” (“They’ve got one eye watching you/One eye on what you do/So be careful who it is you’re talking to”), and a portrait of youthful naïvité and hopes of a blissful living being crushed in the face of reality, on the single “Paradise” (“When she was just a girl/She expected the world/But it flew away from her reach/And the bullets catch in her teeth.”) The concept album feel is driven home with the inclusion of three under-a-minute instrumental vignettes, in the spirit of classic concept albums like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or “The Wall.”

The album opens with the airy and gentle 42-second instrumental title track, launching seamlessly into the soaring and aerodynamic “Hurts Like Heaven,” which has a way of sweeping the listener off her or her feet, serving as a very potent album opener, leading into the more laid back “Paradise” and the hard-hitting and melodic “Peanuts”-inspired “Charlie Brown.” “Us Against the World” is a simple acoustic guitar tune that slows things down, being the first obviously romantic song on the album, furthering the album’s conceptual plot. Brian Eno’s influence (an innovator in ambient electronic music and one the album’s producers) is heard on tracks like the brief “M.M.I.X,” which moves into “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” the gradual festival-pleaser, released as a single earlier in the summer.

Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin’s flirtations with hip hop and R’n’B—beginning with Martin contributing vocals to Kanye West’s 2008 single “Homecoming” and continuing with Jay-Z being featured on an EP from the “Viva la Vida” era—have finally resulted in a first date on “Mylo Xyloto.” A definite outlier in Coldplay’s songwriting history, “Princess of China” is a noise-filled, dance-friendly duet featuring Rihanna. If “Mylo Xyloto” is a gritty movie on urban life, “Princess of China” is the turbulent club scene.

A definite standout from “Mylo Xyloto” is the guitar-driven “Major Minor,” harkening back to tracks like “Shiver,” from Coldplay’s earliest albums. Tracks like the acoustic “U.F.O” provide more quiet intermissions between louder songs, while tracks like “Up in Flames” and “Up with the Birds” glean moments from the band’s piano-influenced past.

The lyrics on “Mylo Xyloto” are also worth mentioning. It would almost seem as if Coldplay’s lyrical variety and vocabulary have gotten smaller as their variety of instrumentation has gotten more experimental and diverse. For someone who, in 2002, sang verses like “Come up to meet you/Tell you I’m sorry/You don’t know how lovely you are” in the intensely heartfelt way they appear on the single “The Scientist,” uttering something like “I turn the music up/I got my records on” in the way they are on “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” just does not seem characteristic of Chris Martin or the rest of the band. It feels less honest, somehow cheaper, less evocative. Whether or not it is simply a reflection of the band’s musical phase at the moment, the words do not seem to be coming from the same place they did on earlier works.

The lyrics on “Mylo Xyloto” range from occasional genuinely thoughtful metaphorical writing, with lines like “Like a river to a raindrop I lost a friend” on “Up with the Birds” to articulations like “Come on baby, don’t let it break your heart.” Or take the opener “Hurts Like Heaven,” with the chorus “You use your heart as a weapon/And it hurts like heaven.” It is, of course, up to the listener to decide whether pop music truly has something to contribute to biblical exegesis, or if Chris Martin simply chose his words for the sake of alliteration and an admittedly catchy chorus.

While Coldplay’s latest offering might come as a disappointment to those expecting a return to their earlier work, “Mylo Xyloto” is far from being a bad album. Although Coldplay have certainly adopted a more mainstream, pop sound—being better suited for radio airplay and dance parties than evenings by candlelight—what they do, they do very well. Even after analyzing the album under a critical microscope, one cannot help but admit that the tunes of “Mylo Xyloto” are endlessly infectious, catchy and fun. And while their lyrical message might not inspire social change, the narrative it weaves is definitely enjoyable, overall making the album a worthy, though markedly different, addition to the Coldplay canon.

(Martin Lukk is a Staff Writer for the The Wittenberg Torch. He can be reached at s14.mlukk@wittenberg.edu)

James Blake, “James Blake”

"James Blake" (A&M Records, 2011)

James Blake’s self-titled debut is far from being a typical summer album. Then again, his music hardly qualifies as typical no matter how one looks at it. It was also released in February.

Since the LP’s release however, Blake has completed a modest first tour of the United States (including festivals like SXSW in Austin, TX), had his album shortlisted for the UK Mercury Prize for Album of the Year, and grown from relative obscurity to a sensation in some circles. The album follows a series of well-received, yet musically distinct EPs—ranging from noisy to ambient and quiet, with a pinch of R&B—recorded during Blake’s last year as a music student in London, winning him early attention on select European airwaves and alternative music websites on both sides of the Atlantic.

The beauty of 2011’s “James Blake” is that it ventures into sparsely explored musical territory and, as a whole, sounds very little like anything we have heard before. Coming from a background of production in dubstep and related genres of electronic music, Blake’s healthy use of electronic clicks and pops, sputtering drums, echoes, sub-bass, and sampling (usually of his own voice) is apparent from the start. The opening track “Unluck” evokes hints of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo electronic release “The Eraser,” or moments from Radiohead’s own revolutionary and experimental “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” from the early 2000s. Before anyone gets scared though, James Blake’s employment of electronic sounds is surely among some of the most calculated and tastefully subtle of such uses, in contrast to the often violent and aggressive 8-Bit Nintendo noises of acts like Crystal Castles or Sweden’s The Knife.

Blake’s skill and artfulness becomes especially apparent when the rich and textured synths creep into the mix, accompanied by Blake’s soulful and occasionally warped vocals, singing concisely and with conviction, with a degree of lyrical introspection that most electronic artists rarely reach. This distinction from its musical roots has prompted some music journalists to consider the style of “James Blake” so significantly divergent as to refer to it as “post-dubstep,” a genre that didn’t exist until this year.

“James Blake” is at once dynamic and minimalist. Tracks like single “The Wilhelm Scream” begin with tactful drum beats and understated synths, onto which Blake sings variations of the same melodic verse. The sounds behind the vocals then gradually intensify, much like in “I Never Learnt to Share,” which Blake sustains on two short lines of lyric, brooding that “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / But I don’t blame them.” By the end of the track, the formerly soothing musical background has grown to a full-out, thick and noise-driven climax.

The more narrative “Lindisfarne I” features only Blake’s vocals, fed through a vocoder, followed by a more melodic “Lindisfarne II,” which begs comparisons to the crooning falsetto of Bon Iver, on 2008’s “For Emma, Forever Ago.”  The Feist cover “Limit to Your Love” is probably the album’s most immediately approachable song, stripped down to piano and Blake’s raw, British-nuanced vocals. Notable here is the song’s delicate use of silence and minimalistic reverberations, building tension and anticipation in the middle of the track.

“Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” are two of the most tender and personal moments on the album, featuring vulnerable lyrics from a fragile voice, accompanied by bare piano chords, giving the tracks more of a singer-songwriter sound than others. “To Care (Like You),” and “I Mind” bring variety to the album with R&B-inspired hooks, rousing beats, moments of soul, and even choral music, as on the relaxed album-closer “Measurements.”

While it might not get guests dancing at the next wild dance party you attend, there are few albums more potent and cathartic for when you do come home alone at 3 a.m. and collapse on the couch to calm those last jitters of dancing and ponder your night’s successes and failures. “James Blake” is a collection of tender and unquestionably unique songs that holds the potential of becoming a modern classic.

(Martin Lukk is a Staff Writer for the The Wittenberg Torch. He can be reached at s14.mlukk@wittenberg.edu)