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How Coldplay Became Possibly the First Band to Be Humanized by a Concept Album

Coldplay lift the masses in Atlanta this September.

The band Coldplay has spent its career practicing one mood, over and over, and getting very good at conjuring it. The mood in question involves heroic uplift, or possibly hearts full to bursting with vague positive emotion. There's something a bit triumphalist or even militaristic about it — recall the drum-banging and uniforms of "Viva la Vida," or the band's rather bizarre and ongoing interest in revolutionaries. One tends to imagine some kind of parade where people throw thousands of flowers and miles of ticker tape out of apartment windows at soldiers returning victoriously from a confrontation that wasn't all that violent. The sound is equal parts pomp and tenderness. It feels a bit stirring, but in the end it's mostly comforting; the band has managed to combine two things that should be at cross purposes.

Apart from that, well, Coldplay deftly avoid doing too much of anything you might be tempted to comment on. For much of their career, they actually made that habit seem clever, even generous; their songs stripped English pop-rock down to such a bare essence that the music was hardly even there, and the only things imposed on you were a melody, a dollop of mood, and the aforementioned soaring-pomp thing. This was not remotely a bad formula, especially given Coldplay’s way with a melody — it was, at the least, world-conquering in terms of sales and tended to produce cozy, absurdly hummable singles.

On the other hand: I use the word "imposing" because that actually seemed to be the mentality behind a lot of the band's writing, especially once the world-conquering started. It was as if they worried that any commitment to doing anything too particular would be selfish, a form of bullying or trying the patience of fans. Coldplay are a bit too bashful to really advance any ideas, so they tend to wave their hands in the direction of ideas you already recognize and work from there. They like to sound grand, but they don't want to be too overbearing about it; so they write songs of a grand type, then pull enough punches to leave behind mild pomp. They like to sound dreamy, but they don't want to get too atmospheric and lose your interest; so they record down-to-earth songs and sprinkle them with dreamy accessories. They'd like to be a little cool, but they certainly wouldn't want you to think they think they're cool. It's a wonder we even get to hear their music — everything about their demeanor makes you imagine them standing around the Parlophone head office telling everyone no, really, let's not release these songs, we wouldn't want to bother anyone.

If you are part of that minority for whom the joy of modern music is being able to seek out endless acts who will impose really specific aesthetic ideas on you, then this is bound to seem like a massive problem. Which will be fine, because you are probably not part of Coldplay's intended audience. But the truth is that many listeners really do appreciate music that is agenda-less, stately music that conveys mood and emotion but doesn't much bother you with style, music that fills a room with the anticipated sounds and is not part of any hobbyist's search through a world of options or aesthetic politics.

I mention all this because on their new album, Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay are trying to do something specific. The basic Coldplay formula still applies, obviously. It's all sparkly mid-tempo pomp, all the time. The melodies are forever grounded in eighties pop, the presentation in nineties pop-rock, the production in the aughts' digital gloss. They're still not entirely able to decide whether their obligatory interest in electronic music is an interest in art and the underground (the way it is for their peers in Radiohead, whom they do a funny imitation of on "Major Minus"), or an interest in sounding like the rest of the pop charts — though the big European synths, guest vocals from Rihanna, and thick coats of studio sheen on this album suggest they're coming to an answer on that question. No, the big thing here is that they've made a concept album. A grand, synth-augmented concept album about two people finding love in some kind of authoritarian dystopia, in which there exist bands of people called "the Lost Boys" and "the kids" feel the revolutionary power of music and love and the phrase "it's us against the world" appears on various tracks — in other words, the kind of concept album you'd expect a rock band to have made sometime between 1978 and 1984.

One almost wishes Coldplay had hired whoever did the cover art for all those Journey LPs. One almost wishes they'd hired that person not just to design the cover art, but also the set for an accompanying musical. Because it turns out there's a zoomy theatricality to this stuff that's actually pretty cool — possibly even charming to rock geeks. It wipes away all worries about whether the band's getting overblown — not just your worries, but Coldplay's, too. Coldplay is not a band that winks at you about anything they do, but the concept here is quaint enough to feel playful. It even seems to translate something for the benefit of those who never really "got" the level of craft involved in the band's world-conquering period — turn the whole exercise into a stagy fictional narrative, and it's a lot easier to understand the kind of audience-pleasing grandeur they’re truly good at. Besides which, that one mode they won't ever step out of — the pomp-and-tenderness thing, the doe-eyed soaring, the vaguely militaristic uplift — makes a lot more sense if you imagine listening to it while falling in love and revolting against some kind of shiny, retro-futuristic, eighties-inspired, techno-authoritarian dystopia.

So here — at least for the time being — is the sound of Coldplay secretly doing something, even if it's restrained enough that the average fan can safely brush over it.

Related: Vulture Imagines the Plot of Coldplay’s Rock-Opera Album, Mylo Xyloto

Photo: Chris McKay/WireImage