In 1970 "Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship" released Blows Against the Empire, a concept album about a group of countercultural hippies who rebel against the dystopian oppression of "Uncle Samuel," steal a government starship, and escape the solar system. Blows retains the distinction of being the only full-length musical release to have been nominated for a Hugo award. It didn't win; and indeed it's hard to say why more pop and rock albums haven't followed Kantner's onto award shortlists, because contemporary pop has manifested an enduring fascination with SF. Take a browse through the "music" section of the Science Fiction Encylopedia if you don’t believe me.
Coldplay's new release is the latest in a long line: like Kantner's, a concept album set in a futuristic and oppressive dystopia, in which young tearaways utilise the respective powers of love and music to liberate themselves. It won't be nominated for a Hugo; but it is part of a vigorous tradition, not just pop music with a science fiction sensibility. From Rush's 2112 (1976)—a young man learns to play the electric guitar, thus breaking the power of the evil, collectivist twenty-second-century solar system—to Muse's The Resistance (2009), bands return to this narrative template. This is the tradition Ben Elton plundered to write the West End musical (built about the Queen back-catalogue) We Will Rock You (2002)—a future dystopia from which the youth are redeemed by the power of music. The London Daily Mirror reviewed the show memorably: "Ben Elton should be shot for this risible story." But in another sense, Elton was simply channelling one of the main modes of music-SF crossover. Rock, of course, is about youth rebellion, howsoever effectively that fact has been commodified and denatured over the last fifty years. Sticking it to "the Man" translates naturally across into fables of SF rebellions against future dystopias—Orwell's Big Brother is "the Man" par excellence.
The narrative of Mylo Xyloto concerns a boy and girl who live in an conformist, grey, subterranean future world. Presumably one of these two is named Mylo and the other Xyloto, though it’s not made clear in the lyrics. Their respective characterisation is sketched by the album's first two songs, he in the fluently rapid "Hurts Like Heaven," and she in the more considered "Paradise," the album's stand-out track. She (we are told) "was just a gi-i-i-irl" who "expected the wo-o-o-orld"
But it flew away from her re-e-e-each
So she ran away in her slee-ee-ee-eep
Despite these creaky lyrics, though, the song itself is superb: a genuinely affecting musical articulation of the imagination as a site of transcendent refuge; particularly in the, frankly, beautiful syncopated descant of the song's chorus.
It is on the creaky lyrics, though, that the album's SF narrative depends. In "Charlie Brown" the protagonists have had enough: "when they smash my heart into smithereens/be a bright red rose come bursting the concrete." They decide to "run wild" ("stole a key/Took a car down town where the lost boys meet"). Songs alternate gloom at the crushing pressures of this artificial environment with yearning hymns to escape. The solution appears to be to undertake a last-scenes-of-THX-1183-style escape: "and if we could float away/Fly up to the surface and just start again" ("Us Against the World"). The two of them attempt to escape; she dies; he grieves, but eventually escapes anyway and, in the album's final track, is suitably amazed by the sight of the sky and the sound of birdsong.
The sky is blue
Dreamed of light, til it’s true.
And I'm up with the birds.
It's a fairly daft story, certainly; but there are some very pretty moments, musically, as we go along.
Indeed, this sounds like a Coldplay album that's been injected with a serum derived from the Coldplay glands of all other albums: the soaring and swooping melodies; the woh-oh-oh choruses; the multilayered fill, not quite "wall of sound" but at least "garden fence of sound"; the 12:8 and 6:4 and 8:5 time signatures. The heart. The sleeve. Coldplay's signature sound is one third Floydish stadiummagumma, one third earnest Brit-pop indie, and one third chart-friendly catchy pop-anthem. But of course I don't need to tell you that. Their cultural penetration has been such that you already know what Coldplay sound like. I need only add that Mylo Xyloto is a very Coldplay-ey record, something that will either endear or repel you, depending on how you feel about Coldplay.
And as far as that goes they are, of course, a band it's fashionable to despise: irreducibly naff and earnest and, worst of all, really popular. But it seems to me that contempt is really the least interesting response to uncoolness. The reason pop music enjoys such a cultural dominance nowadays is that it mediates the adolescent experience of love and despair, of isolation and belonging; there's nothing cool about that gawky, inchoate, cyclotropic portion of human life. But (and here I come back to my main point) the same can be said of science fiction. I stand before you today a man in my forties unable to avoid the truth that my heartfelt attachments to both pop music and science fiction were seeded in my early teens. And though my intellectual expectations—particularly of the latter—have, I think, matured since then, the fillip these two artforms give my heart is still ineluctably youthful.
The science fictional aspect of the latest Coldplay record, in other words, is only partly to do with the derivate narrative the songs embroider. It is as much a more formally realised mixture of teenage awkwardness and teenage transcendent yearning that, in a Golden-Age-of-SF-is-twelve sense, gets under the skin of the appeal of precisely this sort of literature.
For a group of men who are, by some metrics, the biggest AOR band in the world, Coldplay retain a rather winning diffidence about their abilities; a collective gaucheness which will either endear them to you, or, perhaps, only annoy you more. According to the NME, the band's confidence sank so low during recording that they got themselves hypnotised by the album’s executive producer Brian Eno ("nothing came of it, but at least we tried it"), and lead singer Martin announced he felt "suicidal" as the album's release date approached, fearing "a backlash from the fans." It’s hard to credit, listening to the result: a more fan-friendly work could hardly be imagined, every box in the checklist of everything Coldplay fans love about Coldplay ticked. But Martin's anxiety says something important, I think, about Coldplay's appeal. Draw a line, placing at one end every arrogantly boastful super-confident alpha-male rapper, and you'd have to put Coldplay at the extreme other end ("Yes I feel a little bit nervous," Martin sings breathlessly against the galloping backbeat of "Hurts Like Heaven"; "yes I feel nervous and I cannot relax"). The uncool of Coldplay's music, and more specifically their self-awareness of this fact, is not a strange detail to be explained away in the teeth of their global success: it is the very ground of that success. The puzzling thing is that a music so soaked through with the valences of awkwardness and banality should, simultaneously, be so joyful—for Mylo Xyloto, taken as a whole, is a marvellously joyful album. It's worth reiterating this point, I think: for although they trade in Pink Floyd's crowd-pleasing stadium sound, married sometimes to a sort of Floydish introspection, they never sound glum the way Floyd generally does. Whatever your inner Scrooge may mutter about this music, you have to admit that its lift is up not down. And mocking accessibly, well-made pop because it's accessible and popular seems to me to miss an important point.
Then again, insofar as accessibility depends upon recognisability, it carries its own dangers. Writing catchy pop is very hard, and my admiration for Coldplay's skill in that regard is genuine; but the thing about catchy is how easily it can be caught from elsewhere. Vietnamese newspapers have, apparently, accused "Princess of China" of being a plagiary of "Ra Ngo Tung Kinh" by Vietnamese singer Ha Tran. I can't assess the validity of this charge, but I certainly kept getting glimpses of other songs as I listened. "Major Minus" lifts its verse melody wholesale from Gary Numan's "Films" (of all songs); the guitar arpeggio lick running through "Us Against the World" is from the Manic Street Preachers' "Everything Must Go," and there are weird glimpses of the Sugar Babes' "About You Now" in "Up With The Birds." Perhaps this is increasingly inevitable in an idiom that has reused all possible combinations of three chords and thirteen notes.
We might also note how Christian Coldplay's otherwise inchoate religious spiritualism is; whilst also observing that this doesn’t undermine the album's SF-ness. On the contrary, the uplift of much SF is intimately interpenetrated with religious idioms. A gulf separates out the real-McCoy Christian rock scene from this sort of music of course, and some of the emotional lift fans love about Coldplay come from a studied non-specificity of religious referent, something less ecumenical than downright mealy-mouthed. The band's last international number one "Viva La Vida" was a straightforward hymn to personal redemption, more or less in the tradition of "Amazing Grace," except that Martin superstitiously muddied the lyrics—Roman cavalry choirs rather than Roman Catholic ones; the certainty "Saint Peter will call my name" rather cravenly glossed as "for some reason I can't explain" and so on. As with the group's broad-brush emotional strokes, this probably needs to be read not in terms of evasion but rather as a precisely the ground of the band's appeal.
In Mylo Xyloto Martin's lyrics mix SFnal cliché with great dollops of this non-specific religious testament. So, one repeated image is that of the teardrop (emblematic, presumably, of sadness) being magically transformed into a waterfall—that wonderfully vague symbol of "positivity," the touristic Sublime, flow and fertility with rainbows flickering through the spray. One track is called "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall"; another, "Paradise," includes this phrase in its lyrics. Now this image may makes me think of the old Spitting Image puppet of Paul Gascoigne, a manikin with hoses fitted into the corner of its eyes the better, satirically, to represent the Geordie football superstar weeping improbable quantities of water (for reasons with which UK readers will already be familiar, and which are probably too involved to explain for the benefit of US readers). But another way of taking it is an articulation of the hope that sorrow can be baptismally reclaimed as joy. And hope is the album's currency, more broadly. The "heaven" mentioned in "Hurts Like Heaven," like the "Paradise" of that song, both are and are not pointedly Christian recompenses for the miseries of mundane existence. "Heaven is inside," insists "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall"
Like a river to a raindrop I lost a friend
My drunken as a Daniel in lion’s den ("Us Against the World")
"Us Against the World" also declares that "the saints goes marching in" and pronounces a pious "amen" to the thought of sunrise. We may wonder how literally we're supposed to take it.
My sense is that the SF superstructure of the album is there precisely to inoculate it against the dangers of wibbly-wobbly spiritualism. The patent Coldplay uplift is literalised in its story of ascent from the depths; its mildly conceived dystopia is there only to provide a place from which Chris Martin's anthemic singing can lift off. In the final analysis the album's science fiction is of the same stripe as its spiritualism: vague enough not to get in the way of the music's affect.