Perhaps rock stardom is not all it's cracked up to be.
How else to explain the malaise lurking beneath much of Coldplay's fifth studio album, the absurdly titled Mylo Xyloto?
There are moments where Chris Martin and his bandmates render wholly cinematic splashes of sound (the stirring Paradise, an intriguing hybrid of R&B thump and arena-rock uplift, is an early highlight), but all too often, Mylo Xyloto feels like the world's biggest band just spinning its wheels.
Teamed again with Markus Dravs, Daniel Green and Rik Simpson, the producers of the group's Grammy-winning 2008 effort Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay again relies on its epic, soaring template, but tempers the skyscraping sentiments with more subdued undercurrents. In advance interviews, Martin has billed the record as a conceptual piece, a "dystopian love story" that, frankly, will require a bit of effort on the listener's part to unravel.
The inclusion of dancier elements -- R&B megastar Rihanna guests on Princess of China; frantic beats underpin cuts like Charlie Brown and lead single Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall -- seems a concession on the band's part, acknowledging the genre's current dominance in pop music. Yet Coldplay has succeeded (more than 40 million albums sold, to date) precisely because it has provided what no other band seems willing to: unabashedly sentimental rock music, engineered to set stadiums around the world shouting along in unison. (The acoustic, achingly romantic Us Against the World comes closest to capturing Coldplay in its natural state.)
By turning inward and embracing heretofore unused flourishes, Coldplay splits the difference between its believers and doubters. Mylo Xyloto is not quite an experiment, not quite a continuation of Viva la Vida. The middle ground -- a rock star's no-man's-land -- proves to be a strange place to pitch a tent.
Clarkson's 'Stronger' a little weak
Burleson-raised pop superstar Kelly Clarkson is at a similar juncture in her career -- Stronger is her fifth studio album -- but, unlike Coldplay, she has never really had to balance critical acclaim with public adoration. She's revered as a powerful singer, and Stronger doesn't skimp on opportunities to showcase those fearsome pipes. Yet in attempting to blend the turbulence of My December and the perky charms of All I Ever Wanted, Clarkson ends up with a muted version of both.
Lead-off single Mr. Know It All is a subdued kiss-off, while Dark Side strains to hit the "moody" nail on the head and Einstein has the goofiest chorus Clarkson has yet released: "I may not be Einstein/But I know dumb plus dumb equals you."
It's absent on the retail version, but if you buy the deluxe version of Stronger on iTunes, you'll be treated to a track that contains all the fury, passion and technical skill that too much of Stronger (largely co-written by Clarkson, but stitched together by a sprawling committee of producers and songwriters) lacks: Clarkson's smash duet with Jason Aldean, Don't You Wanna Stay.
All these months later, it's still a knee-weakening powerhouse, the sort of alchemy record-label execs pray for nightly. One wonders why those responsible for Clarkson's career didn't take one look at the response to the song and immediately start work on a country album. Pop profits be damned, Clarkson's potential is being choked off by these redundant, lackluster collections of gleaming pop songs. Let the caged bird sing, already.
Few would confuse the idiosyncratic Tom Waits for anything resembling a rock star.
For the better part of four decades, the singer-songwriter has fashioned a willful, thorny catalog that defies simple categorization. His first collection of all-original music in nearly a decade, Bad as Me thrums with an urgency and a purpose that finds Waits (again collaborating with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) delivering some of the sharpest, most concise material of his career.
From the brass-fueled choogle of opener Chicago through to the searing battlefield report Hell Broke Luce, Waits waltzes between grassroots agitation (Talking at the Same Time), horny wanderlust (Get Lost) and an elegiac ode to the hardscrabble life of a touring musician (Pay Me).
Waits' singular, roadkill-soaked-in-cigar-ashes-and-Wild Turkey voice is in fine form throughout -- he even doles out a shockingly limber falsetto. And the musicians assembled to help realize his fractured, unbearably gorgeous soundscapes is a Murderer's Row: Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo, Augie Meyers, Flea, Charlie Musselwhite and some guy named Keith Richards all turn up throughout. Bad as Me is an album, presented with no apparent compromise or concession, that sounds thrillingly like little else out there. It also ranks as one of the year's finest.
Who needs rock stardom, anyway?