If A Head Full Of Dreams really does turn out to be the last Coldplay album, the band is giving one final gift to the Coldplay haters of the world. Of course, they’ve given those haters plenty of great presents over the years: Chris Martin’s Stipe-level dancing, the paint-splattered old-timey military uniforms, the constant and shameless self-deprecation. For reasons that go way beyond their music, Coldplay have been one of the world’s most embarrassing bands since long before The 40-Year-Old Virgin turned their existence into a homophobic joke. They’re grand and silly and perfectly willing to fall flat on their faces publicly. But they’re also a band capable of writing anthems, songs that will whip up big singalongs in rooms full of strangers. Their best songs — “Clocks,” “Yellow,” “Viva La Vida,” “Fix You” — have that sweeping sense of yearning that can absolutely transcend whatever silliness went into their creation. Over the years, they’ve hired Brian Eno, sampled Kraftwerk, and worked with Jay-Z — all without giving off the slightest impression that they’re trying to be cool. Instead, they’ve subtly adjusted to changing pop-music climates; as recently as last year’s Ghost Stories, they were offering sonic nods to Bon Iver and the xx and big-tent EDM, finding ways to seamlessly fit that music into their sadly swelling majesty. But A Head Full Of Dreams does none of those things, offering all the hammy grandiosity with none of the quiet power. It’s like a parody of a Coldplay album, and its the easiest-to-hate thing they’ve ever recorded.
Coldplay called in a lot of favors to make this one. They got Stargate, the Norwegian production team partially responsible for a lot of great Rihanna singles, to co-produce. They got Noel Gallagher to play negligible guitar on their closing anthem “Up&Up,” and they got “Gimme Shelter” backup howler Merry Clayton to do gospel wails on the same song, both of which basically serve to pad the song out to a seven-minute running time that the song itself never justifies. They got Beyoncé to sing incandescent harmonies all over “Hymn For The Weekend.” They got Gwenyth Paltrow, Chris Martin’s ex-wife, to sing on one of the songs that’s about not being married to Gwenyth Paltrow anymore, and they got Tove Lo (who, to the best of my knowledge, has never been married to Chris Martin or Gwenyth Paltrow) to sing on the other one. They got the damn White House to approve a couple of samples of Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace,” drawing on the gravity of a recent, still-raw tragedy without ever justifying that association. As a sheer display of resources, A Head Full Of Dreams is impressive.
But all that starpower never makes up for the album’s lack of songs, and only one of those guest appearances — the Beyoncé one, not surprisingly — really improves the record in any discernible way. Instead, this is an album of big, empty gestures. There’s a lot of big-room thump on A Head Full Of Dreams, and that trick served Coldplay just fine on the Ghost Stories track “A Sky Full Of Stars” last year. But where that song had a hard, tangible hook, tracks like “A Head Full Of Dreams” and the single “Adventure Of A Lifetime” just decorate the kickdrums with spangled pseudo-Afropop guitars and whoa-oh-ohhhh chants. Lyrics have never been Coldplay’s strong point but here, nearly everything that comes out of Chris Martin’s mouth is a vague platitude about walking through fires or turning your magic on. Coldplay have been making inoffensive mush since they came along and wrote a song for you; it’s honestly part of their appeal. But this is the first time a Coldplay album that doesn’t have a single song I can hum after hearing it once. That’s new.
A Head Full Of Dreams isn’t a complete disaster. Singing on a song next to Beyoncé might make Chris Martin sound like an average vocalist, but there’s some easy chemistry to their vocal interplay on “Hymn For The Weekend.” “Everglow” and “Fun” are the two big divorce songs, and both of them are more direct and wounded than anything on Ghost Stories — which was, after all, Martin’s divorce album. They’re sadder partly because they’re the songs on which Martin tries to put a happy face on the breakup, even ending “Fun” with the suggestion that maybe they’ll get back together someday. It’s a rare moment of acute, cutting humanity from a songwriter who tends to prefer sloppy vagaries. And goofy though it may be, I like that Coldplay are still pretentious enough to build an entire song from a few piano tones and a recitation of an ancient Rumi poem.
Otherwise, though, A Head Full Of Dreams is an album that goes for down-the-middle crowd-pleasing pop and fails abjectly. The album feels like a forced attempt at a big statement, a craven pop move from a band who has, for the first time, failed to read the zeitgeist. The album comes only a few weeks after Adele’s 25, an album that went for straight-up unadorned classicist heartbreak. That album has absolutely captured the audience that Coldplay seems to desperately want to please, and it did it without all these attention-grabbing gimmicks. Coldplay are certainly capable of making an album as simple and moving as 25. Instead, they’ve badly overreached and made something that feels over-processed and underthought.
In a recent interview, Martin called the new album “the completion of something,” and added, “I have to think of it as the final thing we’re doing. Otherwise we wouldn’t put everything into it.” But if Coldplay stick around, hopefully they’ll put less into it next time. On A Head Full Of Dreams, they’re doing too much. And if this is all they can do right now, then maybe it really is time to hang it up.