Album: A Head Full of Dreams
In Brief: An enjoyably upbeat, albeit overly mushy and commercialized, record that I’d be willing to accept as a decent swansong if Coldplay actually followed through on their threat to call it quits after seven albums.
There’s something lovably dorky about Coldplay that has kept me interested in their music long after the point where it became difficult to take the band seriously. Underneath all of the masquerading as whatever style they deem to be the latest fun thing topping the charts (which often results in them having a run at those very same charts despite not really understanding what they’re imitating), I get the feeling that Chris Martin is still a shy kid flattered and overwhelmed by all the attention that’s been lavished on his band ever since the humble beginnings of Parachutes. Any notion of the standard “Coldplay” sound has largely gone out the window since Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, and while there are still a few tropes that make anything by the band immediately recognizable as their own, I can at least appreciate how easy their old sound was to copy and how they needed to play around with other sounds and genres in order to escape the doldrums of everyone sounding like them.
These days, Coldplay has largely dropped any pretense of being a “rock” band in favor of going full-on pop. Programmed drums and we’re-just-visiting R&B/dance tropes have replaced the aspects of their sound that were once much more guitar-driven. (Lead guitar is still present on many songs, as is the ubiquitous piano, but the guitar isn’t really a driving rhythmic force any more.) Since they were mostly soft rock when they were rock, I don’t necessarily miss it. And when the occasional guitar lick or bit of live instrumentation really does catch my intention, I’m grateful for the synthesis in much the same way that I am when I listen to U2‘s 90s albums. I hate to keep throwing U2 around because they’re the band Coldplay gets compared to most often, and a band they’ve done their fair share of self-consciously aping, but for the most part nowadays, when I hear something that reminds me of U2, it feels like they’re taking it in a direction U2 wouldn’t have taken it, so I’m okay with it as a reference point. The uncharacteristically mellow, slow-jam dominated Ghost Stories dispelled the most obvious of those comparisons a mere year and a half ago, and we’ve been promised that they already had the more upbeat follow-up record, A Head Full of Dreams, in the pipeline since what seems like mere minutes after that one was released. It finally dropped in December, possibly the worst time of year to release a new album if you actually want it to be a hit, but music industry conventions be damned, Coldplay are out to dominate the charts again and this time they’ve attempted it with their most goofily optimistic and downright danceable collection of songs yet. The spectre of Martin’s divorce from actress Gwyneth Paltrow does still hang around a few of these songs (and Paltrow herself shows up to sing a background vocal on one of them, oddly enough), but aside from that, it’s a cavalcade of co-writes and guest stars and throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that most of it will stick. It’s a big ol’ slab of cheesy fun. These days, that’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Coldplay.
There are rumors that A Head Full of Dreams will turn out to be Coldplay’s last record, stemming from Chris Martin’s comments that seven albums feels like a complete set in much the same way that the Harry Potter books do. I’m not sure if I buy it, because he had to eat his words way back in 2002 when he claimed A Rush of Blood to the Head was the best album they could possibly ever make and they might as well break up after that one. So basically the rule is that if the album title contains the word “Head”, they’ll toss around the notion of breaking up and I’ll get to recycle the same old lame joke that I made in my review title. It’s only fair. As much as I enjoy their music, I can’t say there would be a huge Coldplay-shaped hole in my music collection if they actually followed through on the threat. They’re sort of the musical equivalent of comfort food at this point. There are enough other bands hitting that same sweet spot, so I wouldn’t feel a huge sense of loss.
1. A Head Full of Dreams
If the ambient fade-in with its ringing keyboard sounds seems naggingly familiar to you, it’s because Coldplay’s employed a similar trope to open their last several albums, starting with “Life in Technicolor” on Viva la Vida. Coldplay really likes to draw you in gently with an instrumental passage that they’ll reprise in some way late in the album – it’s predictable at this point, but it’s an effective enough device, so I’ll let it slide. Once the entire band gets cranked up, the danceable rhythm and the happily swooping guitar licks definitely remind me of a handful of U2 tracks from the more fun side of their equation – I’m thinking “Elevation”, “Magnificent”, perhaps even a few tracks from Achtung Baby. It’s not bad company to be in. The ringing keyboards and/or dulcimer help to set the song apart and make it Coldplay’s own, and as optimistic anthems go, this one isn’t gonna change the world, but it’s a downright fun salute to those optimistic enough to think they can change the world, and it’s a signal that Chris Martin’s disposition has changed considerably since we last heard from him: “Oh, I think I’ve landed where there are miracles at work/For the thirst and for the hunger come the conference of birds.” One might accuse Martin of writing about birds a bit too much, since “Up with the Birds” closed out Mylo Xyloto and a flock of birds was the inspiration for “O” on Ghost Stories, but in the latter case, that at least gives us a sense of continuity.
Oh hey, would you look at that? Along comes a another song about birds. I suppose the aim of this one is to fill out the reference alluded to in the previous song, and explore what it feels like to actually be up there, soaring without a care in the world, and well… you’ve heard these analogies a million times before from other artists, so I’m not going to pretend it’s lyrical genius, but Martin does get a few interesting turns of phrase in there, most notably when he claims that we’re “guilty of nothing but geography”, as if to say that this experience should transcend the physical places we were born and the man-made lines on maps that would keep us divided. It’s a nice enough thought; I can get behind it. The real reason this one’s a winner is because of its relentlessly fast pace and the beautiful electronic ambiance and fluid guitar melodies that run through it – anyone who enjoyed “Hurts Like Heaven” will probably like this one as well. Perhaps one of the album’s most self-consciously dorky moments comes at the end, when Martin has the gall to sing such a corny like as “In this world so cruel, I think you’re so cool”, but what makes it amusing is how the song suddenly stops on a dime where you’d expect him to hold the note and do some of his patented wounded puppy crooning or something. He just suddenly spits it out: “I think you’re so…. coo’.” Like, I don’t even think he gets to pronounce the “l” before it suddenly cuts to the next track. I sort of love how goofy it sounds.
3. Hymn for the Weekend
This song fades in on the sound of chirping birds (y’know, just in case the thematic arc wasn’t heavy-handed enough), and then a lovely female voice comes wafting in on the morning breeze, and… oh, it’s Beyoncé. I wish I could have been surprised by that like I was when they did “Princess of China” with Rihanna a few years ago, but we know they’re buds with Jay-Z and everything, so a Beyoncé appearance was almost obligatory at some point. While the band does their dardnest to assert themselves with a strong piano melody and some funky percussion, this ends up feeling more like a Coldplay guest appearance on a Beyoncé club banger than the other way around. That’s not entirely a bad thing. I may not be a big Beyoncé fan, and I sure don’t know why the hell Coldplay’s aiming a song straight at the club market (especially with the regrettable lyrics about “feeling drunk and high”), but I’d be lying if I said they did get my head bobbing in a major way before. Martin’s clearly out of his league in the vocal department, but somehow his eager grown-up schoolboy croon works, and as cheesy as the whole thing is, I’ll admit to getting a lot of surface level enjoyment out of this one, right down to Beyoncé last “Let me shoot across the sky” as it echoes after everything else has faded out. (Well actually, the last time around it’s just “Let me shoot across the…”, which kind of bugs me, but we already know from “Paradise” that Chris Martin has a thing for cutting off words and sentences at grammatically awkward points, so I’ll just let it be what it is.)
I could tell from the opening bars of this song’s piano melody that it was going to be pure schmaltz. I hate to say that about a song that perhaps demonstrates a lot of psychological growth on Chris Martin’s part, but it’s just so insistently inspirational and major key and devoid of anything interesting in the chord progression department that I can’t help but hate it on principle. The dull drum programming and overall languid pace of the song don’t do it any favors, either – Ghost Stories had a lot of slower tracks where the lack of live drums was glaring, but at least there was something interesting going on with the drum loops and/or melody in most of those songs. I think I’d even take “True Love” over this one, as bland as I thought that track was. The gist of this one seems to be that Martin is finally learning to let go of his ex-wife, but to appreciate the memories she left behind, the “everglow” of all of the good times they had together, I guess. He managed to somehow talk Gwyneth into singing a background vocal on this one – not that you can tell unless you’re insistently listening for it (and even then, you wouldn’t know it was her without being told), but she sings the line “How come things move on? How come cards don’t slow?”, which I guess was a snippet of a conversation they had about how it felt to be splitting up and how the world doesn’t come to a screeching halt just to mourn the death of a relationship that meant the world to him. It’s not brilliant, but it’s heartfelt, and I can sort of appreciate it for that. But jeez, the lyrics and rhyme schemes through out most of this song are downright atrocious. I don’t care how thick of a British accent you have, “go” and “know” don’t rhyme with “special” and “celestial”, and “rolled” doesn’t rhyme with “purple”.
5. Adventure of a Lifetime
Back to the upbeat stuff! In the absence of anything resembling profound songwriting, it’s Coldplay’s knack (well, their producers’ knack, if I’m honest with myself) for assembling a solid dance track that once again hooks me here. The disco rhythm and the Eastern-tinged guitar riff are instant winners, and I figure if you’re going to write a song that checks off all the cliches in the book about feeling your heart beating and feeling alive again, I guess this is the best way to do that. My suspicion that this album was designed all along to be the yin to Ghost Stories‘ yang is confirmed even more by the line “turn your magic on” – a prominent track on that album lamented the loss of that magic, but here it’s back in full force. I don’t know what else to say about this one – either you’ll dismiss it as superficial silliness, or you’ll be all like, “This is my JAM!”, and I’m firmly in the latter camp.
This song betrays its title by not being very much fun at all. It strikes me as a sadly misguided attempt to remain upbeat and optimistic about a situation that is clearly still very painful. And I don’t mind a songwriter being realistic about the fact that he hasn’t worked out all of his issues yet, but tonally, something about this song is just off. There’s nothing bad about its overall mellow pace or its mellow guitar melody – I actually like that it’s one of the more guitar-based tracks on the album. But it doesn’t feel like the lyrics and the instrumental or vocal performances really line up. I know it’s called “Fun” because it’s about reminiscing over a now-dead relationship and remembering, “Didn’t we have fun?” But it feels like a step backwards coming after “Everglow”, because the question of “Maybe we could again” is raised at the end of the song, and I just get the sense he and Gwyneth are not on the same page about that one. Even weirder, this song’s a duet with Swedish singer Tove Lo, and her voice is nice enough, but I have to wonder if this was actually the song Gwyneth was invited to sing on and she turned it down because it weirded her out a bit, so “Everglow” was a concession on her part. (That’s pure speculation and I have no evidence to back it up, so feel free to ignore those last few sentences entirely.) The oddest thing about this one is that I feel like you could replace the guitars with synths, and it would fit right into an Owl City album. Trying to sound cheery when you’re singing about heartbreak is right up his alley, after all.
Ugh, I really hate it when artists try to demonstrate how profound they are by using someone else’s recordings to make some sort of a statement in the place of writing an actual song on about the subject. Here the subject is the frail and transitive nature of human life, and the recording is a pitch-shifted Barack Obama reading a poem about life being a “guest house”, followed by a snippet of him singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of a congresswoman killed in the Charleston shootings last summer. All while a mellow but vaguely happy piano ballad plays in the background. This is heavy stuff when taken in its proper context. It might work on an album that was more geared toward social commentary, but it sure doesn’t fit on an album that’s about generic cheery optimism when it’s not about getting over your ex. Plus, why would you pitch-shift Obama’s voice? It has enough weight and sincerity as it is. Lowering the pitch of it just makes it sound like he’s giving really eloquent ransom demands.
8. Army of One
More programming and vocal sampling here – I’m not in love with the sound of it, but I don’t hate it either; it’s just Coldplay opting for production bells and whistles over actual contribution from the rest of the band, which I sort of dislike on principle, but it’s kind of catchy so it’s not like I don’t superficially enjoy listening to it. We’re hitting the tipping point where dumb lyrics are able to sink an otherwise catchy song, though. I don’t mind the surface-level happy on a few songs, but when they they start trotting out tired tropes about having been all around the world and not finding anyone who compares to your special lover and being willing to fight for that person as “an army of one” because “my heart is my gun”, it sort of triggers my gag reflex. Next!
8.5. X Marks the Spot
Seriously, Coldplay? Why do you insist on hiding songs in the space between the actual listed songs, while devoting an entire track or two to boring interludes? It really screws things up when I’m trying to pick out a specific song for a Spotify playlist, among other things, and that was more of a problem on Viva la Vida and Mylo Xyloto than it is here because no way I’m going to single out either of these dumb songs in this particular case, but it’s still annoying. Coldplay’s going for an after-hours slow jam here, with the minimal, lurking beat and Martin’s digitized vocals, and I’m sort of intrigued by the sound of it at first, but it doesn’t really build up to anything, just another overbearingly silly metaphor about how being lucky in love is like finding buried treasure and how losing it feels like the end of the world. Or something like that. The track ends in a rather unimaginative fadeout barely two minutes in, so since they couldn’t be bothered to give it a whole lot of depth, I don’t really feel like putting a whole lot of effort into understanding it.
9. Amazing Day
This is by far the best of the ballads on the album, not that it holds a candle to something like “The Scientist” or “Fix You”, but they’re trying to paint a picture of a peaceful, perfect day (ugh, too many P’s in that sentence) that Martin spent with his loved ones, and for once I’m not bothered by the wistful, optimistic melody or the middle-of-the-road pop approach. I actually like the simplicity of it and how the guitar fixes my mind on the main melodic hook of the song so that it feels like a good payoff when Martin starts crooning that same melody at the end. Here he sits on a roof and admires the stars (possibly a callback to “A Sky Full of Stars” on Ghost Stories, but it’s not like he’d never written about the stars previously) and somehow manages to capture that sacred moment in time, like one of those little golden memory spheres in the movie Inside Out that gets filed away when a joyful memory is so meaningful that it becomes a formative part of your life experience. I like this one simply for being a snapshot of something beautiful without needing to generalize about how it’s everyone’s experience or how it has some big, grand meaning about life, the universe, and everything. Sometimes it’s enough just to observe that a wonderful thing is full of wonder.
10. Colour Spectrum
And now we fade into another useless interlude, just when Coldplay was starting to win back my goodwill. Sigh. Here they string together echoes of sounds from the other songs on the album in a semi-desperate attempt to make us notice some sort of an overarching theme – the fade-in from the title track, Beyoncé doing her diva thang, more from Obama’s ransom note, and probably some other snippets from the remaining songs that I haven’t picked up on yet. I appreciate the attempt to tie it all together, but it feels like a clumsy afterthought when they could have instead focused more attention on making the musical styles and themes presented on this album somewhat cohesive within the songs themselves.
These guys must really like the word “Up”. This is their third song to have a title beginning with it. Not that you’d compare it to “Up in Flames” or “Up with the Birds” for any other reason – it’s another piano ballad grafted onto an R&B anthem, and we’ve had a few too many such things on Coldplay’s last few albums, but if they’re trying to perk up the mood at the end of the album, then mission accomplished, I guess, because this one’s a pretty good singalong, and honestly they haven’t ended a record with something like that since “Everything’s Not Lost” on Parachutes. (Again, not a comparison I’d make for any other reason.) I like that they give this one time to really open up – there’s space for a Johnny Buckland guitar solo as the song builds to its climax, and while I’m still wondering why the live drums and bass got such short shrift on the past few albums, this does seem like the kind of track that will be a misty-eyed, feel good closing track when played live on what could well be the band’s farewell tour. Six minutes or so in, when the song comes to a cold stop on Martin’s final admonition “Don’t ever give up”, I feel like I wouldn’t have minded it going on for another few minutes. (Unfortunately there are a few seconds of the album left, and it’s just another useless hidden track with some vague female vocalization – I didn’t care about this when they did it on Ghost Stories and I care even less about it now.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
A Head Full of Dreams $1.50
Hymn for the Weekend $1.25
Adventure of a Lifetime $1.75
Army of One $.25
X Marks the Spot $.25
Amazing Day $1.25
Colour Spectrum $0
Chris Martin: Lead vocals, piano, organ
Jonny Buckland: Guitar, backing vocals
Will Champion: Drums, backing vocals
Guy Berryman: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: