In 2004, Chris Martin wrote a brief essay about U2 for Rolling Stone magazine. They were, he said, “the only band whose entire catalogue I know by heart”, although you didn’t need him to tell you that Coldplay were a band created in U2’s image. Like U2, who spent their early years being sneered at by the post-punk cognoscenti, Coldplay were never fashionable. As with U2, that quickly ceased to matter: huge, biggest-band-in the-world success being a fairly powerful riposte to tastemakers crowing that you’re a bit naff. And like U2, Coldplay only really make sense on a large scale. You don’t have to be a Coldplay fan to think they’re exceptionally good at headlining Glastonbury, just as even Bono’s loudest naysayer might be forced to concede that they’re uniquely skilled at playing stadiums. Grand gestures and vast audiences are a large part of both bands’ raison d’être.
In recent years, that’s started to look like a problem. Coldplay’s last album, 2019’s Everyday Life, was their only one in the last 20 years not to go multi-platinum. In America it sold barely a tenth of its predecessor, A Head Full of Dreams. It dabbled in African music, doo-wop and gospel and included what appeared to be an unfinished demo – yet it was far from the kind of up-yours gesture to which artists who have tired of adulation are often prone. It still clearly wanted to be loved by a mass audience. There was a lot of straightforward Coldplay-ing among the experiments, including Orphans, a song so keen to attract thousands of people bellowing along that it borrowed the “woo-woo” vocals from Sympathy for the Devil.
Fear that their place at the top might be slipping after 20 years has evidently rattled the band. In contrast to the understated release of Everyday Life, Music of the Spheres arrives with an all-guns-blazing promotional campaign. You literally couldn’t escape it even by leaving the planet: lead single Higher Power was beamed into the International Space Station. Everyday Life’s esoteric collaborators – Femi Kuti, Belgian rapper Stromae, whoever suggested they sample Alice Coltrane – have been politely shown the door. Swedish pop super-producer Max Martin is fully in charge, and this time the guest list includes singer and actor Selena Gomez, the fifth most-followed person on Instagram, and K-pop superstars BTS.
Leaving aside the NME’s game suggestion that BTS and Coldplay represent an obvious match because “they are two of modern pop’s deepest thinkers”, the charitable interpretation of what’s going on here is that Coldplay realise rock music has been in a moribund artistic state for some time now and the real action is in pop. The less charitable interpretation is that these are collaborations that have been actioned with one eye on the Spotify stats.
In fairness, Coldplay have pivoted towards pop before – on their Stargate-produced, EDM-infused 2015 album A Head Full of Dreams – but it has rarely sounded as deliberate or as non-organic as this. Higher Power audibly takes the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights as its inspiration but works on the principle that the biggest-selling single of 2020 was perhaps too understated. So the synths are cranked up until they blare – which turns out to be the album’s default setting. They blare at you throughout My Universe, which is the BTS feature, a song that proves Coldplay are perfectly adept at churning out boilerplate pop, as well as the more reliably Coldplay-esque Humankind, which is decorated with a motif that sounds like Van Halen’s Jump. Even the guitar-heavy People of the Pride blares: it’s based around an ungainly, glam-by-way-of-Muse riff, and is evidence – should you have needed it – that rocking out in the fingers-making-devil-horns sense is not Coldplay’s forte.
The intensity is weirdly claustrophobic, so eager to please that it’s off-putting. It’s a relief when the ballads arrive, even when they’re as syrupy as the Selena Gomez duet Let Somebody Go, or the a capella Human Heart, a nice idea that underuses R&B duo We Are King by submerging their voices in Auto-Tune. The best thing here, as far as songwriting goes, is Biutyful, which has a genuinely lovely melody: you wonder how it might have sounded had Coldplay not taken it upon themselves to turn it into a peculiar bit of ersatz K-pop.
Perhaps realising that all this might look craven, the brazen lunges for the top of the charts are welded to a concept – something about an alternate universe. The album is interspersed with ambient electronic interludes with titles such as Alien Choir, while the closing Coloratura takes a relatively straightforward Coldplay stadium-rouser and expands it to 10 minutes using moody, beat-less synthesiser passages and dramatic string and harp-bedecked interludes. Rather than tie the album together, this stuff jars against Music of the Spheres’ evident commercial aims. The overall effect is odd, as if Pink Floyd had decided to extend their reach circa Wish You Were Here by getting the New Seekers and Little Jimmy Osmond involved. Who knows: it might work, at least commercially. But there must be more dignified ways to stay at the top.
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