Behold Coldplay’s irrepressible thirst for mainstream pop relevance!
Throughout the first decade of this millennium Chris Martin and friends evolved from humble British pub-rockers to the biggest band in the world. They arguably peaked with 2008’s Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, which earned them rave reviews and their first Hot 100 #1 hit. Ever since then, their albums have followed a pattern: Coldplay spent the 2010s alternating between overt bids for mainstream success and more self-consciously artsy prestige pieces. They followed 2011’s laser light show Mylo Xyloto, the one with “Paradise” and “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall” and Rihanna, with 2014’s shadowy divorce record Ghost Stories. Then came 2015’s rainbow-streaked A Head Full Of Dreams (the one with Beyoncé), and then, after the lengthiest layoff of their career, 2019’s ambitious and rewarding Everyday Life.
That means it’s time for another lunge toward overt accessibility, and boy have Coldplay delivered on that front. The new Music Of The Spheres is the poppiest Coldplay album to date, sometimes gloriously, often shamelessly. Not only did Max Martin (no relation to Chris, lol) co-write and produce the whole thing, they also called in K-pop superstars BTS, Selena Gomez (just as she’s pivoting to Latin pop), and R&B duo We Are King for guest spots. How’s that for covering your bases? There are some fascinating names in the credits, including Jon Hopkins, who helped Coldplay with the electronic interludes “Alien Choir” and “Infinity Sign” but couldn’t stop them from weaving the “Olé olé olé” soccer chant into the latter, and Metro Boomin, who lends the faintest scent of trap music to the extremely vanilla “Let Somebody Go.” But any bold creative decisions here — and there are a few — are overshadowed by the unapologetic cheese.
“Higher Power,” the lead single and first proper song, suggests that Coldplay gunning for Top 40 airplay doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It sounds like they asked Max to give them the “Blinding Lights” treatment — shiny, effervescent, and unmistakably ’80s, trading out Abel Tesfaye’s nocturnal edge for the kind of brightly inoffensive positivity only Coldplay can provide. There’s maybe a trace of Tame Impala in those big, booming synths, too, and the gospel euphoria is woven in subtly enough that it doesn’t register as a choir-for-gravitas trope. The song is so catchy, so sweeping, so entirely well executed that I can’t help but vibe with cornball declarations of love for Dakota Johnson like “I’m so happy that I’m alive at the same time as you.” (I do wish I hadn’t checked the lyrics sheet and discovered that “I’m like a broken record and I’m not playing right” is followed by “Drocer nekorb a ekil mi,” i.e., “I’m like a broken record” backwards. Good lord.)
Elsewhere, we get more big ’80s energy with “Humankind,” a mostly satisfying shout-along that underlines all those old U2 comparisons with an extra-thick neon highlighter. “I know, I know, I know/ We’re only human!” (Chris) Martin sings, stretching out the first half of “human” and imbuing it with ache. “Human Heart,” a collaboration with We Are King and Grammy-beloved polymath Jacob Collier, pulls off the Bon-Iver-gospel-hymn thing pretty well, despite its hokey lyrics about gender roles. The 10-minute prog-pop epic “Coloratura” is our reminder that even the poppy Coldplay albums have their daring explorations, just as the artsy LPs are still peppered with craven crossover bids, (Remember “A Sky Full Of Stars” on Ghost Stories?) The plaintive neoclassical piano intro; the soaring, Floyd-inspired guitar break; the graceful orchestral splendor of it all — you don’t have to be an expert on music theory to recognize the band is flexing here, digging deep within themselves to draw out the best kind of preposterous.
But Coldplay are also capable of the worst kind of preposterous, and that’s the zone so much of Music Of The Spheres inhabits. The would-be populist anthem “People Of The Pride” awkwardly stomps along with guitars cranked to 11, affirming beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coldplay cannot choogle. The love-drunk, floaty “Biutyful” is too cute by several degrees, piling up saccharine elements like pitched-up vocals and that ridiculous spelling. No amount of masterful drum programming could elevate the Selena Gomez duet “Let Somebody Go” beyond adult contemporary schmaltz. (Selena! You made “Hands To Myself”! You’re in Only Murders In The Building! You don’t have to lower yourself to this dreck.) And then there’s “My Universe,” the song on which Coldplay ride BTS like a rocket to the top of the charts.
Coldplay have never sounded more desperate for a hit than they do on “My Universe.” The funky, retro-futuristic adult contemporary disco track sets aside almost everything that ever made this band great in favor of the most basic building blocks imaginable. Sure, the starry-eyed wonder remains, but on “My Universe” it’s been swallowed up by the tackiest glitz imaginable, music that makes Coldplay’s Chainsmokers collab seem tasteful by comparison. The music sounds like it was selected from a catalog of pre-made templates for an ebullient pop song. The chorus — on which (Chris) Martin shouts, “You, you are my universe/ And I want to put you first!” — is dopey in the way “Higher Power” manages to avoid. And although BTS’ lithe vocals sound at home within this sonic universe, their presence on a Coldplay album could not feel more forced. It’s hard to hear a song like this and believe anyone involved firmly believed in what they were doing. It comes across as deeply cynical, and Coldplay and cynicism do not mix.
Yet like so many other BTS singles in the pandemic era, “My Universe” debuted at #1, thus achieving what must have been the song’s intended goal and reinforcing Coldplay’s belief that lowering themselves to this was worth it. It’s unfortunate that they felt like compromising their musical integrity to this extent was necessary because they initially ascended to the peak of the industry by being themselves. “Yellow,” “Clocks,” “The Scientist,” “Speed Of Sound,” “Fix You,” “Viva La Vida” — these songs made Coldplay the butt of jokes, but I never had to wonder whether they meant it. And frankly, those songs ruled. At a time when sensitive-guy arena rock was everywhere, few were doing it as artfully and dynamically as Coldplay.
That’s part of the reason I liked Everyday Life so much. On their 2019 double-LP, Coldplay managed to do what U2 have never pulled off in their awkward post-relevance years: They recaptured their old essence without resorting to a hollow impression of their younger selves. The album felt vital and current and exploratory but also very much like Coldplay, polarizing quirks and all. They seemed to understand their strengths and were leaning into them, which suggested Coldplay could have a creatively fruitful long-tail career if they wanted to, cranking out fascinating new statements every few years and touring the hits in between. But Everyday Life‘s singles failed to make any discernible impact in pop culture at large, and the album debuted way down at #7 on the Billboard 200 with less than 50,000 in first-week sales, all of which is apparently unacceptable in Coldplay world. In response, they’ve delivered an album that reasserts their commercial bona fides while validating every criticism ever lobbed at them. Rarely has such a consistently joyous album been such a bummer.
Music Of The Spheres is out 10/15 on Parlophone/Atlantic.