When was the last time Coldplay released a truly great album?
Those for whom the question incites finger-pointing and maniacal laughter can close their browser tabs now. As for everyone else: Surely your pick is not 2015’s color-splattered pop move A Head Full Of Dreams, which stands as this band’s creative nadir. At the time I personally stumped for 2014’s dark, dreary divorce album Ghost Stories, though in hindsight much of my admiration hung on “Magic,” one the most impeccable singles in their catalog. There are those who’ll go to the mat for the 2011 rock opera Mylo Xyloto, which is a reasonable take, but that one doesn’t blow me away like 2008’s also-grandiose Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. Or maybe you’re the type of person who believes Chris Martin’s crew have never been as good as on that initial three-album run when they grabbed the baton from U2 that Radiohead had refused and became the biggest band in the world.
No matter where you stand on Coldplay, if you’ve ever liked them at all, Everyday Life has something for you. Although its 53-minute runtime does not necessitate two discs, in spirit it justifies the double-album conceit. Like the White Album or even Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (whose disc titles “Dawn To Dusk” and “Twilight To Starlight” preceded Coldplay’s use of “Sunrise” and “Sunset”), this set finds its creators hopping from style to style, sometimes experimenting, sometimes returning to their wheelhouse. More often than not, it works.
Coldplay have spent the second half of this decade pointedly capping off their first era. Last year they released a career-spanning documentary, which probably would have been accompanied by a greatest hits album if artists besides Spoon still released such comps. And Martin famously compared A Head Full Of Dreams, his band’s seventh LP, to Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s series. Although both are massively popular franchises centered on dorky English boys with supernatural abilities, Coldplay’s offensively bright and gravitas-free LP7 bears little aesthetic similarity to Harry Potter’s grim finale. And anyhow, that makes Everyday Life, what, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them?
Maybe the comparison is actually not so awful. After all, Fantastic Beasts is a prequel, and Everyday Life often finds the guys who made “The Scientist” going back, not just back to the start, but to somewhere well before they began. A large chunk of the album explores musical traditions that predate Coldplay, but always with the keen awareness that they’re writing these traditions into Coldplay’s story. Sometimes this means minimalist takes on foundational American genres: the gospel praise song “BrokEn,” the folksy acoustic protest “Guns,” the soul lullaby “Cry Cry Cry.” Other times it means delving into truly ancient stylings: the achingly beautiful symphonic instrumental “Sunrise,” the baroque piano excurcion “Bani Adam,” the cathedral-ready choral arrangement “When I Need A Friend.” This sounds like the kind of exercise that could send you to the emergency room from slapping your own forehead too much, and yet the gambit is successful. The songs are good.
So are the more modern tracks. Many sound like classic Coldplay, whatever that means to you, be it arena-ready anthems (the gracefully gliding “Church” and the triumphantly floating “Champion Of The World”), sparse folk-rockers that hearken back to their earliest material (“Eko,” “Old Friends,” “Wonder Of The World / Power Of The People”), or ballads that get away with laying it on a little thick (“Everyday Life” and “Daddy,” one of the prettiest songs they’ve ever released). Lead single “Orphans,” with its liquid bass and yearning children’s choir and shameless Bono hero worship, originally struck me as a continuation of their insipid A Head Full Of Dreams sound, but examining it from different angles has revealed its sparkle. And when they get loud, as on the gloomy “Trouble In Town” and the heavily grooving funk-jazz parade “Arabesque,” it hits as hard as they intend.
To assemble this sonic scrapbook, they’ve pulled from a wide range of sources, many of them via sampling, interpolation, or some other vaguely defined inspiration meriting a writing credit: late Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, Persian poet Saadi, jazz legend Alice Coltrane, second-generation Afrobeat star Femi Kuti, the Durutti Column’s John Metcalfe, “Piece Of My Heart” songwriters Bertrand Berns and Jerry Ragovoy, Belgian rapper Stromae, Scandinavian pop production maestros Max Martin and Stargate, Pakistani qawwali singer Amjad Farid Sabri, Italian violinist Davide Rossi. In the lead-up to Everyday Life, Martin supposedly spent a lot of time traveling the world, meeting people and gathering experiences in disparate cultures. According to drummer Will Champion, Coldplay recorded in brief, intensive stints in locales ranging from a wintry Italian hilltop, the California beachfront, the English countryside, and their old studio in North London. The globetrotting ethos has continued into the album rollout, with a pair of livestreamed release shows from Jordan beginning tonight.
If all this maneuvering hadn’t already made Coldplay’s intentions plain, they spell out their call to empathy in the title track’s chorus: “Cause everyone hurts/ Everyone cries/ Everyone tells each other all kinds of lies/ Everyone falls/ Everybody dreams and doubts/ Got to keep dancing when the lights go out.” It’s the sort of come-together messaging you’d expect from a band like Coldplay, bleeding-heart optimists who deal in grand gestures and have been more successful than most at bringing together wide swaths of people. It’s also one of the weakest songs on the album, partially because it insists on tying a bow on the messy realities Coldplay have explored leading up to it.
None of the positions Coldplay stake out while cataloguing the world’s ills will surprise anyone, but they at least tend to be more nuanced than “Why can’t we all just get along?” Audio of disgraced Philly cop Philip Nace terrorizing minorities during a traffic stop kicks in just before the thunderous climax of “Trouble In Town,” while “Guns” finds one of history’s most earnest rock stars successfully pulling off sarcasm via the refrain, “The judgement of this court is: We need more guns.” On “Orphans,” Martin frames the plight of displaced Syrian refugees in terms anyone could understand: “I wanna know when I can go back and get drunk with my friends.” And when he ends “Arabesque” by repeatedly snarling “Same fucking blood!” it becomes easier to buy into the song’s assertion that “music is the weapon of the future,” if only until the end of the track.
Elsewhere Martin trades the global focus for the personal. On “Church,” a giddy love song presumably addressed to new flame Dakota Johnson, he sings, “What can I tell you/ When I’m with you I’m walking on air,” and he sounds like it. Other times he leaves you guessing about whether the character sketches are autobiographical. In particular, it’s possible to hear “Daddy” as his regretful reflection on spending so much of his kids’ childhoods on the road, a thought that lends crushing weight to its gently arching chorus: “You’re so far away.”
Everyday Life overflows with gorgeous moments like that. If this is the beginning of a new era for this band, they’re getting off on the right foot, with songs that showcase them at their best. It’s not going to change the world, and it may not even change anyone’s mind about Coldplay, but it resoundingly succeeds in updating the answer to that question up top. When was the last time Coldplay released a truly great album? Right now.
Everyday Life is out 11/22 on Parlophone/Atlantic. Pre-order it here.