About halfway through the fifth song on Coldplay's fifth studio album, Mylo Xyloto, I jotted this note in the margins of the lyrics page I'd printed out: "I have no real idea of what's happening here."
I had just heard these lyrics: "The tightrope that I'm walking just sways and ties/The devil as he's talking with those angel's eyes/And I just want to be there when the lightning strikes/And the saints go marching in/And sing/Slow it down/Through the chaos as it swirls/It's just us against the world."
This much I could suss out: There's tension. There's conflict. There's something important at stake. The devil (or his stand-in) is deceptive. More than that I couldn't say.
When I got done listening to the entire album, I did a bit of research on the release and was startled to discover that Mylo Xyloto is actually a concept album about two young lovers struggling against a dystopian establishment. When Muse and My Chemical Romance covered that exact topic, I got their drift right away. When Green Day flailed through it, everybody got it. But Coldplay? I felt left out in the, um, cold.
Looking back at the lyrics with the intended concept in mind, I could recognize its broad brushstrokes. But I missed it the first go-round even though I was preparing to write this review and therefore carefully combing through the songs looking for themes and values. So I'm left wondering how a casual fan is going to get past the title.
Still, here's my best shot at understanding frontman Chris Martin's (by now, famously) inscrutable lyrics.
"Hurts Like Heaven" talks of a man's refusal to submit to forces that apparently want to beat him down ("Fire from my belly and the beat from my heart/Still I won't let go"). The song also gives voice to those who feel marginalized and disenfranchised ("Written up in marker on a factory sign/'I struggle with the feeling that my life isn't mine'"). Then, despite the fact that the allegory dives into vandalism, listeners are urged to make a difference as Chris sings, "On concrete canvas, I'll go making my mark/Armed with a spray can soul/ … Use your heart as a weapon/And it hurts like heaven."
Channeling George Orwell, "Major Minus" counsels against submitting to a Big Brother-like regime: "Nothing they say is true/But don't believe a word/It's just us against the world." "Don't Let It Break Your Heart" advises us not to give in to futility and despair. As does "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall," which also seems to allude to prayer ("From underneath the rubble sing a rebel song/ … So you can hurt, hurt me bad/But still I'll raise the flag/ … Maybe I'm in the black, maybe I'm on my knees." The album closes with "Up With the Birds," an imaginative flight of fancy in which a new beginning is compared to soaring above the chaos like a carefree bird: "Send me up to that wonderful world/ … Float all over the world/ … I know one day/Good things are coming our way." "U.F.O." mentions a passing allusion to heaven as described in Revelation: "Somewhere the streets are made of gold."
"Up in Flames" mourns a relationship that seems to have ended, then begs, "Can we pour some water on it?"
"Us Against the World" includes a passing (and lyrically opaque) reference to drunkenness: "Like a river to a raindrop/I lost a friend/My drunken hazard Daniel in a lion's den/And tonight I know it all has to begin again."
Vague though it may be, Coldplay cares enough to ply us with a longing for something more, something better. And that's a good thing.
But the band doesn't make it any easier for me to latch on to much in the way of takeaway. When I listen to lines like, "My heart is beating and my pulses start/Cathedrals in my heart," I get the sense that Chris Martin genuinely longs to experience something transcendent, something important, something bigger than himself. What's maddening is that his yearning's never really connected to anything. It's got no discernable anchor that I can identify—like, say, God. The result is a sentimental yet ephemeral effort that not only feels untethered, but also unsatisfying.
Like U2, whose sound the band often seems to emulate, Coldplay strives mightily to evoke deep emotion in fans. Unlike U2, Chris and Co. never put feet to the feelings.