Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

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Both Social Justice Warriors and the people who hate them are panic-starters. Confirmation bias is their religion, and it’s hard to find the truth between all the bullshit. It’s hard to find where racism is truly a problem, and not just a normal case where a black person didn’t get what they want. It’s hard to tell the difference between the actual damage SJW’s do, or paranoia.

Macklemore’s second album makes it easy. SJW’s ruined this rapper. What used to be a confident, inventive and versatile rapper is now a doormat. “White Privilege II” is the centerpiece of the album. Way before you hear it, Macklemore’s crippling guilt over rapping while white cripples the album.

That song is easily one of the worst abominations commited to audio. You need to make songs about raping women and killing ‘damn niggers’ to make something worse. Actually, rappers have done songs about raping women and got acclaim for it.

Where to start with such a trainwreck? It ends with a woman singing about Hip-Hop like it’s some sort of ideal. Maybe she should look to Ice Cube or Eazy-E or Phife Dawg, highly acclaimed rappers who made sure to let us know how terrible women are. Women praising Hip-Hip is one of the most hilarious things ever. I can enjoy plenty of misogynistic music, but it doesn’t make it right.

In fact, “White Privilege II” proves something more terrible than white people rapping. Okay, so some dudes have a wacky entitlement complex and think their phenotypes mean they ‘own a culture’. Still, why are the only living artists Macklemore attacks are women? Why is Miley Cyrus twerking worse than those hundreds of videos and songs about ‘hoes’ and ‘gold diggers’, where women are just decorations in a video? Don’t criticize people for not wanting to listen to objecitifcation of women. It doesn’t matter how oppressed you are. Misogyny cannot be justified.

But Macklemore is concerned with not looking racist. Since we’re dealing with appearances, we can sacrifice other groups for our image. That’s why we bend over backwards to make sure people won’t criticize Islam. So Macklemore is angry over white people rapping and exploitating the precious culture that gave us songs like “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t be talked about. Just don’t be a total moron about it (It’s no “The Blacker the Berry”, a song that gives the oppressed a voice, makes us understand what it feels like). Delivering coherent ideas in music is hard, but when you’re that pretentious is impossible. Hip-Hop is not holy. No one is entitled to Hip-Hop. Don’t tell me how Hip-Hop was for the ‘oppressed’ when misogyny and homophobia are all over the place.

Oh, and Macklemore had fantastic black singers on “Can’t Hold Us” and “Thrift Shop”. So no, Macklemore, your white skin didn’t help you. These black singers did.

Enough about that song, though. For a while, the album hints it might be good. “Light Tunnels” is actually very good. Apologizing to Kendrick Lamar was retarded, but it’s an ambitious song that could only come out of a Kanye-esque narcisstic mind. Then again, whining about fame is narcissitic unless you got psychological insight. The song stretches for 6 minutes, changing the beat constantly but still keeping a hook. It’s an epic, attention-grabbing opener. Macklemore still sounds inconfident in it, but at least it sees him looking forward and trying ridiculous but interesting ideas.

“Downtown” may be an obvious sequel to “Thrift Shop” but it’s a fun one. The aggressive shout-rap is a nice throwback. In truth, the only way it’s a sequel to that song is in concept. It’s a silly rap song driven by a hook that still pushes the music forward. The duo aren’t without talent, they’re just crippled by white guilt and over-seriousness.

The album drops in quality more and more as it goes on. It never becomes offensive until “White Privilege II” and sometimes it rises. Mostly though, it’s so subdued. Nothing about is particularly different from The Heist in musical terms. The songs switch from serious to fun, to a mix of the two. The musical backdrop is experimental and accessible at the same time (“St. Ides” has a beautiful beat). Both hooks and lyrics are important, but this Macklemore always sounds self-aware this time around.

Even when Macklemore was serious and cheesy, he sounded honest. He might’ve sounded ignorant, but he sounded like he genuinaly cared. “Neon Cathedral” worked. “Growing Up” and “Kevin” don’t. It’s as if Macklemore knows this is what’s expected of him. The fun tracks are where this is most apparent. “Brad Pitt’s Cousin” and “Dance Off” lack any sense of joy, or any hook. Macklemore sounds particularly depressed on the former, referencing Deez Nuts (meme, not the band) in some silly effort to inject silliness. Now, if Macklemore deliberately wrote a song about trying to lift his depression in a party, it’d be brilliant. His voice is light-hearted and sounds odd in serious songs, so it’ll be ideal for a song like this one. Instead, Macklemore sounds like he doesn’t really want to make music.

The line “I don’t like who I am in this environment” in the opener is telling. Both parties rarely sound like they want to make this music. Ryan Lewis has cool ideas and a diverse palette, but the beats aren’t attention-grabbing like before. He never takes the ideas to their extreme conclusions. “Need to Know” barely has a beat, as if minimalism is a virtue in and of itself. “Dance Off” is utterly pathetic. It’s a banger with no drums and no basslines. You can only tell it’s a dance song because someone screams about getting down on the floor.

If Macklemore truly thinks white females are ruining Hip-Hop, then he’s a hypocrite. If he just thinks white people are exploiting the culture (No mention of Apathy or El-P or Eminem or Mike Shinoda though), then don’t rap. Don’t rap especially if you don’t feel like it. Even when you leave out the abomination that is “White Privilege II”, it’s a tired album by two people who just don’t want to make that music.

2 popped tags out of 5

Rihanna – Anti

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Rihanna wasn’t supposed to last this long. She’s talented and charismatic, but not enough. Her voice sounds unique now only because we’ve heard it in a dozen songs. She doesn’t have the iimmediatepersonas of other artists like Carly Rae or Melanie Martinez or Lana Del Rey. She always had good hooks and connections with famous DJ’s. That’s why so later in her career she could still make a crappy song like “We Found Love” a hit.

Her best songs were never creative. She just had good vocals and hooks. What makes Anti sounds so weird at first is because there was no build up to such an album. There was nothing weird or wild about Rihanna. She was always a conformist, so much so that she pretend to be a tough rapper on “Bitch Better Have My Money”. Even Bieber’s move to AltR&B makes more sense. He was huge. Rihanna doesn’t feel as huge as him, but just a talented vocalist with good hooks.

As brave as this album is, it’s misguided and pointless at the end. For a while I was sure it was incomplete, with the accidental leak at all. It takes a while until you realize “Kiss It Better” is pretty good. “Consideration” and “James Joint” are interludes which feel more like B-Sides recorded for the heck of it, just to try it. The pounding drums of the first track are interesting, but the novelty wears off quickly. There’s not much there besides Rihanna telling us she’s independent and we should respect her for who she is.

Who is she, though? When you adopt cliches that tell me you’re artistic, how artistic and original are you, anyway? Bieber didn’t just adopt the atmospherics of AltR&B. He experimented with it, putting the stripped-down “Love Yourself” right next to the moombahton of “Sorry”.

Anti is artistic and experimental in a predictable way. Instead of adding new things, it just removes club-friendly beats for ‘atmospheric and minimalist’ beats’. Instead of hooks, we get vocal acrobatics. Just because these things aren’t so radio-friendly doesn’t make them good.

These elements aren’t supposed to make your record inaccessible, anyway. Anyone who thinks experimental music is meant to be difficult on purpose never heard great experimental music. Experimental music ism’t merely different, but it find a way to make its difficulty and oddness enjoyable. Experimental music isn’t so much about ‘being difficult’, but about finding new ways to enjoy music.

Rihanna can’t find something to replace her club-bangers with. The last three tracks are all a throwback to ‘Good Ol’ Soul Music’ with vocal acrobatics. It’s just an obvious attempt to cater to ‘serious listeners’, sort of like how “Titanium” was for a while the only acceptable EDM song. What’s their point, though, besides being a throwback? Can’t I just listen to “Good Ol’ Soul Music” instead of Rihanna’s copy? Just compare “Never Ending” to “Stay”. The former is ‘stripped down’ by only having an acoustic guitar doing something in the background, and Rihanna doesn’t sound interesting. She just sounds serious.

Seriousness is another problem. A common misconception is that ‘quality music’ is always serious. It’s the sort of stupidity you expect from young people who just discovered guitars. Rihanna thinks that by never having fun we will respect her, but all it makes is for a joyless, boring album. The best tracks here are the most fun. The guitar of “Kiss It Better” and the bravado of “Desperado” are a lot of fun. Both are progress. They take the toughness of Rihanna and put it in a more melodic, soulful direction. It’s this mix of soulfulness and aggression which makes it genuinaly experimental, weird but fun.

You can imagine Rihanna in the studio, scowling like a character from Texhnolyze writing off ideas. A producer suggests bass wobbles there. Another one points out to Korn’s remix of “Bitch Better” and suggests adding a metalcore breakdown. Another one thinks that maybe she should try to rip off Black Moth Super Rainbow. “No,” Rihanna says. She’s a serious artists now, so we must not do something too crazy. Let’s just make everything vaguely atmospheric using a lot of small sounds and sings low-key. Let’s make none of the songs stick out, because serious artists make albums and not songs.

Too bad Korn’s addition of guitars to “Bitch Better” is wilder than everything here. Even if you take an album-centric approach, you still need songs that make the album worthwhile. I could enjoy an album full of “Kiss It Better”‘s and “Desperado”‘s. They may not be big singles, but they sound like complete songs with hooks. “Yeah, I Said It” just sounds like a collection of pseudo-atmospheric sounds and vocals. It’s almost a parody of alternative R&B.

Or maybe Rihanna just smoke a lot of weed and the whole album is meant to be enjoyed in a drug-induced haze. There are a lot of psychedelic albums that are very enjoyable without drugs, so I don’t see how it is a defense.

Anti is an important album, but only the surface. Rihanna officially becomes a ‘serious artist’ in the worst ways possible. It’s serious, uses the most predictable techniques to inform you it’s artistic but doesn’t contain an actual novel idea or weird. It doesn’t really challenge you or startle. It’s just boring and joyless most of the time. Rihanna could make a great album if she looked to “Desperado” but here, it’s mostly just posturing.

2 bitches who owe Rihanna money out of 5

 

Sia – This Is Acting

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The role of songwriting is a long-winded debate in music communities. Do artists have to write their own songs to be talented? Do they have to mean what they say to be good? If a rapper writes a convincing song about robbin’ and killin’ and then it’s revealed he’s a cop, does it ruin the song?

This Is Acting somehow must be important to this debate, but I’m not sure how. It’s a collection of rejected songs Sia wrote for others. It’s supposed to reveal, perhaps, something about the singer and the songwriter. Imagine “Alive” if it was sung by Adele or “Space Between” if it was sung by Lana Del Rey.

I can’t imagine anything profound. All I can imagine is that these songs would be far more bearable if Sia didn’t sing them, especially “Space Between”. Sia’s main shtick is that she’s a ‘serious’ Pop star in an age full of Carly Rae Jepsen’s. She stretches her voice. She has huge arrangements and her tone is always grave. There are no “Call Me Maybe”‘s here.

Yes, there’s “Cheap Thrills” and “Sweet Design” but they still sound serious. Sia is that terrible of a singer. She may have technical chops, but like Adele she sucks out the life out of every song. She’s using every song as a vehicle to impress. It’s like a guitarist who can’t stick to a killer riff and has to shred over everything.

Some of it is not entirely Sia’s fault. She has an ugly, unbearable voice. Insulting a female voice as ‘muscular’ in the age where feminism is a hot topic must sound wrong, but there’s no better way to put it. It’s not ‘muscular’ in a way that makes it aggressive or tough or resilient. It’s ‘muscular’ in the fact it removes every sign of femininity. All that’s left are signs Sia had great vocal training and could hold notes.

You can still make a decent record with good hooks if you use your voice right. Sia is always sure she’s on American Idol and that she needs to sing it like the world depends on it. So you get “Move Your Body”, a song hilarious song that would’ve been a B-Side if Rihanna sang it. In the hands of Sia, it’s more serious than any ballad Adele sings.

Adele is an important point of comparison since both have the same annoying technique of being overly serious. At least Adele sings songs that are serious. She may overdo the vocal acrobatics but she has the right tone. Sia thinks songs like “Cheap Thrills” should be sung like they’re about stopping hunger and poverty. “Sweet Design” is the only song that’s somehow fun.

Sia has been terrible since “Titanium” but at least she sounded like she meant what she sung. She sounded like she really believed that the song is the most important thing to happen on earth since the Great Oxygenation Event. Here, it’s so obvious she’s acting.

In truth, authenticity doesn’t matter. Actors and authors write/act things they haven’t experienced all the time. The most important thing to do is to convince the listener you mean what you say. That’s why a lot of musicians can sound thoughtful while being horrible criminals.

Sia is a horrible actor. She’s so detached from the material. Instead of sounding like she believes in the importance, she only does it because the script says so. She follows the formula of a typical Sia song all the way, but the formula is too obvious to ignore. It’s not a grand concept that unites the songs. These are merely serious Pop songs about not being defeated.

If Sia believed in this material, maybe the overblown nature of the music could’ve had some charm. Dream Theater are often fun because they’re oblivious to how ridiculous they are. Sia doesn’t sound like it. She sounds like she knows what sells, that people will gobble it up because it’s more serious than Carly Rae Jepsen.

It can be interesting for a while to guess what song was meant for what artist. In the end, it’s just a collection of overly-serious ’empowering’ anthems. “Titanium” and “Diamonds” were crappy songs. Anthems are supposed to fun. They need a lightness to them. Sia sounds both overly serious and counting her money for all those who wanted copies of “Titanium”. Sia may reveal Pop music is all an act, but she also reveals she’s a horrible actor. I really don’t care if Rihanna doesn’t write her own songs. She’s convincing at least.

The chorus of “Reaper” is horrible. Sia sounds so moronic holding the note as if the world depends on it while the song doesn’t demand it. “Move Your Body” is so serious I can’t listen to it with a straight face. It’s appallingly bad. “Alive” is somehow decent.

1 chandeliers out of 5

Adele – 25

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There are people who think Adele saves the music industry. Unlike othe singers, she has technical abiliy and can sing live. People like this are actually what is wrong with music, not Pop singers who don’t strain their voice. 25 has the tricks that can dazzle an ignorant person. Adele’s voice never remains still. She always pushes it. Building a shelf that can reach outer space is also impressive, but not meaningful or practical.

What’s the point of these vocal acrobatics, anyway? Vocal acrobatics are the anti-thesis of being expressive. A person who’s broken wouldn’t have thr strength to make sure they hit all the right notes. Of course, music is artificial and I’m not sure if Pulambo was as angry as he seemed to be on Glassjaw’s debut. You put an act, but it has to be convincing.

“Hello” is a really good song wrecked by horrible singing. Your average person can sing it better if they switched the style. When the chorus hits Adele hits such notes that makes you wonder whether she’s so broken. When SR-71 made “Hello Hello”, the singer never stretched his voice like this. He was restrained, the knowing the relationship is doomed but by showing some warmth maybe things will improve.

There’s no warmth in “Hello” because of how technically proficient Adele is. She cannot create an intimacy with the audience because she sounds like an American Idol contesntant trying to impress the judges.

The sparse arrangement doesn’t help at all. Instead of creating intimacy, it actually ruins it by pushing Adele’s voice forward. It only emphasizes how the focus should be on Adele’s vocal skills.

Things improve so much when Adele tones it down. “River Lea” is the best track and not just because it doesn’t drill into your head how technical Adele’s vocals are. Toned down, Adele sounds more sincere and soul-searching. The marching drums are also a break from the boring arrangement of piano and strings (which was redundant the first time, anyway).

The idea that technical ability equals good music is a common fallacy of the ignorant. It’s easier to judge it, it takes less thought and it’s not as challenging. The (beautiful) lyrics behind “Hello” or the melody don’t matter. You don’t have to go through much comparing-and-contrasting. If the singer hits the notes or the guitarist can shred for hours, then it’s good music.

Music is good because it’s good for something, and I’m not sure what 25 is good for. It’s supposed to be a heartbreak album, but you can’t sound heartbroken when your vocals are so perfect.

The uber-serious image of Adele also has something to do with the popularity, but it’s the type of seriousness artists have because they have nothing else. It’s like that anime, Texhnolyze, where everyone looks tough and don’t express emotions, which makes it more emotionally shallow than a Michael Bay film.

Don’t wear a serious cover unless you can back it up. Most artists aren’t good enough to do that, and even those who are don’t tend to try to be so important. Adele clearly thinks this is an important record. If she didn’t, then “Hello” wouldn’t have been a Michael Bay version of a ballad. But how is the set-up of just vocals and piano more artistically valid than electronics or guitars? There’s more loneliness in Skream’s “Where You Should Be” than in any other track here. That song has a cold feeling to it, like the detachment you feel. There’s a reason Drake’s vocals are always lower.

But all Adele has to tell us is trite things about heartbreak and love. In “When We Were Young” she recommends taking a photograph because youth doesn’t last. On “All I Ask”, she gives up on having any melody at all. That track is the worst offender. It’s just an obvious show-off, having nothing but a voice and a piano. It’s perhaps the most stripped-down song and the most pretentious.

Besides “River Lea”, the only deviation is “Send My Love”. It’s a bit of a fuck-you-I’m-over-it song and it’s another one where Adele doesn’t stretch her voice. Instead of sounding defiant though, she sounds bored and tired. Instead of throwing herself at a different type of song, she sounds out of confidence. It feels more like she put it on the album so it won’t be all ballads. I don’t see how a tired upbeat song is any better to a tired ballad.

25 was a big event and if you’re into Adele ballads you’ll love it. After listening to so much music though, I need more than just vocal acrobatics. YouTube is full of such acrobats, who can sing popular songs technically better but with much less personality. Adele isn’t any different from them besides the fact she writes her own songs. That’s not a good thing, considering only “Hello” sounds salavageable too. Melanie Martinez did an emotionally-wrecking album without showing off any technical ability. I wonder if Adele will ever learn.

1.5 hello’s out of 5 outside’s.

Coldplay – X&Y

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This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5