Album: Kaleidoscope EP
In Brief: While I feel like this EP’s release was a bit overhyped, and I’m not inclined to trust rumors of the band having recorded their final album, there are some genuinely exciting new directions taken here that I’d love to see the band explore a little further… and also some embarrassing attempts at pop culture relevance that I wish they’d bury once and for all.
COLDPLAY HAS A NEW EP OUT! COLDPLAY HAS A NEW EP OUT! COLDPLAY HAS A NEW EP OUT! COLDPLAY HAS A NEW EP OUT! COLDPLAY HAS A NEW EP OUT!
Oh, sorry guys, I got a little overly excited there. Does a new EP from Coldplay really warrant that much excitement, when it’s really just the leftover ideas that didn’t make it on to A Head Full of Dreams, which was a bit of a scattershot album in the first place when it was released a good year and a half ago? Eh, not really. But the band’s got a big enough global profile that pretty much anything they release gets massive amounts of hypes well before it actually drops. They’ve apparently entered a phase of their career where they want to release music in smaller doses and more often, hoping to stay culturally relevant, rather than releasing full albums all at once. And while we got our first warning shot of the new territory they were exploring when their collaboration with The Chainsmokers, “Something Just Like This”, was released several months ago, pretty much every other track slated for this EP saw some sort of a standalone release, even if just as a promotional single, before the full collection actually dropped at the end of July, after having its release date pushed back a few times. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this was, but then I’m one of the few oddball music fans who still seems to care how a collection of songs hangs together as a listening experience, more than I happen to care about how any one particular song captures the general public’s attention. And to that I say… well sure, there are some good songs on the Kaleidoscope EP, but I can’t see myself wanting to listen to all five of these tracks in a row the way I would with all ten or twelve tracks on one of Coldplay’s better albums once they do something new and most of the material here falls into the same cracks that most non-album songs do in my mental music database.
Kaleidoscope, while named for a rather forgettable interlude track on A Head Full of Dreams, doesn’t sound so much like a direct follow-up to that album as it does a sort of time-travel experiment in which the old “still recognizable as a band” Coldplay and the new “we hang out with every big musical celebrity” Coldplay collide. Coldplay has an interesting habit of making musicians I otherwise wouldn’t listen to sound a little more my speed by way of collaborations, but despite the ear candy, it all feels a bit cheap to me at the end of the day. Coldplay isn’t going to make me go check out more music by Big Sean or the aforementioned Chainsmokers with these songs any more than they were gonna turn me into a Beyoncé or Rihanna or Tove Lo fan previously. The better material here is the stuff that the band came up with on their own, or with their old pal Brian Eno. Basically the stuff that sounds like they’re still functioning as a cohesive band rather than just Chris Martin and a bunch of glitzy programming with the occasional fun guitar or piano riff, even though it doesn’t shy away from electronic influences or from turning interesting corners that I might not have expected from Coldplay in the old days. Honestly, the best two songs on this EP get me more excited than anything on either A Head Full of Dreams – probably the first time I heard “Midnight” was the last time I got this excited about a new Coldplay song, and that one came attached to the rather disappointing Ghost Stories. It’s nice to be at least briefly reminded of a time when I was still actively a Coldplay fan rather than just thinking, “Eh, they’ve got a new record out, I might as well go listen to it.” If some of your favorite Coldplay albums are Viva la Vida and Mylo Xyloto, you’ll hear a few things here that might perk your ears up. I wouldn’t hold out for a return to their early sound any time soon, but I tend to remember that era more for individual classic songs than entire albums of theirs, so I’m OK with that.
Well, a 5-track EP probably deserves a long-winded introduction about as much as it deserves the excessive hype it got… which is to say not that much, so I’d better get on to the actual songs already.
1. All I Can Think About Is You
The first track will probably provide the most solace to old-school Coldplay fans. While I can’t say that the gentle bass groove that opens the track immediately correlates to the memory of any previous Coldplay song that I can think of, it is nice to hear Guy Berryman in the spotlight for a change, with the drums, piano, and mellow guitar that support this groove all being decidedly organic. I honestly can’t think of the last time Coldplay went full-on live band for the duration of a track – or at least, not one that was released as a single. It’s an unusual way to ease into a record, and I rather like it for that. Chris Martin’s lyrics add to the sensation of being somewhere disorienting and yet invitingly different: “Fish fell out of water/Bird stuck on the ground/Chaos giving orders/Everything is upside down.” While this may all be a metaphor for the memory of a past lover he’s still stuck on who turned his world all topsy-turvy when she left, I appreciate that at least he’s describing it in abstract terms. If the song merely stuck to this groove all the way through, then honestly it wouldn’t be much to write home about, so I’m glad when it quite suddenly starts building to a big climax, “Fix You”-style, midway through. That’s where the piano suddenly breaks out with some cascading piano chords that are definitely reminiscent of “Clocks”. I’d be pissed at the band for plagiarizing from themselves if they weren’t doing it in a song that broke from the usual verse/chorus structure and that seemed to be an intentional, nostalgic callback written many, many years later. As Chris Martin’s voice soars and Jonny Buckland lets loose one of his most expressive guitar solos, this feels like a mix of all the elements I loved about early 2000s Coldplay, presented in a way where I’ve never quite heard these things from the band all at once. The result is that the song feels bigger and more expansive than it actually is. At four and a half minutes, they don’t belabor the point, but the performance they’ve delivered certainly feels like the kind of thing that would lend itself well to an epic, extended live performance.
2. Miracles (Something Special)
A common thread in a lot of Coldplay’s more recent ballads has been these kinda-snappy, but kinda-squishy beats that I like to call “fake R&B”, because they’re clearly designed to have more of a programmed, urban feel to them, yet there isn’t quite enough volume to them to really make the grooves memorable. A lot of Ghost Stories was rather hit-and-miss due to this tendency, as was the bonus track “Miracles” on A Head Full of Dreams… which this song seems intended as a sequel to despite the two not appearing to have any musical elements in common. They could have just as easily dropped all pretense of the two being related and just called it “Something Special”, since the word “Miracles” never appears in the lyrics here… but that’s a minor quibble. Chris Martin’s tendency to go for these all-encompassing, global themes when trying to deliver encouragement to an individual who presumably isn’t feeling to special is what really sinks the songs. As admirable as it may be that he recognizes several record-breakers and social justice icons such as “Muhammad, Mahatma, and Nelson” in the first verse, following it up with famous females such as “Amelia and Joan” and “Rosa, Teresa” in the second verse, it honestly feels a bit cloying to simply drop these names without making any clear connection to how the person he’s singing to could follow in their footsteps. It’s all a very pie-in-the-sky, “Just be yourself and don’t give up” type of encouragement, probably aimed at the same crowd who thought Katy Perry‘s “Firework” was written just for them. The only thing that helps the song deviate from its otherwise middle-of-the-road delivery is a guest verse from rapper Big Sean, whose flow and clever rhymes I kind of appreciate, but who seems to be at odds with the message of doing something altruistically good for the world as he mostly raps about figuring out how to make money off of his talent and prove his music is more than just a hobby. I wouldn’t even mind that if Coldplay’s overall intent was simply saying “I told you so” to naysayers, but you can’t set your song up to be all social-justice-y and then suddenly switch to, “Look at me, suckas, I’m rich!” and hope for it to be taken seriously. This is a weird song for me, because when I think about it after the fact, I seem to recall having enjoyed listening to it, but then I listen to it again and I’m like, “Wait, no you didn’t.”
3. A L I E N S
Now this song struck me as something genuinely special right away. It marries Coldplay’s more recent love of electronic sounds with some of the darker, more experimental sounds the band tried on for size in the Viva la Vida era, and throws in a weird time signature (which I think is 5/4, or maybe a combo of 4/8 and 6/8) on top of that. It’s like they rolled the nervous energy of “Major Minus” or “42” together with the off-kilter rhythm of “Glass of Water” or “Charlie Brown”, and with Brian Eno at the production helm, they were able to let their electronic muse wander in a decidedly non-trendy direction. It’s the rare electronic-oriented Coldplay song that makes me feel like drummer Will Champion is still an important part of it, rather than sitting on the sidelines, replaced by a dull programmed loop. The tumultuous beat, with its emphasis at weird places, is at once disorienting and refreshing. The lyrics, which are from the point of view of alien wanderers hoping that the earthlings will trust them and give them a new home, are a pretty obvious metaphor for the various refugee crises being hotly debated in American and European politics, and it should be readily apparent where Coldplay lands on this issue. (Especially since the proceeds from this song are going to a charity called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station.) Thematically, I can see how this one might have fit into A Head Full of Dreams, as the interlude “Kaleidoscope” alluded to weary visitors from other lands being a gift rather than a burden. Musically, it would have been a real jolt to the system on that or any other Coldplay album, except for maybe Mylo Xyloto. Despite it not fitting in much of anywhere in their discography, I love how well it merges the stuttering, offbeat electronic sounds with the acoustic and electric guitars, the strings that come in at the end, and of course Martin’s soaring melodies. I simply cannot “heart” this song enough. It is flat-out amazing.
4. Something Just Like This (Tokyo Remix)
This would be the aforementioned Chainsmokers collaboration, which is presented here as a live version, performed by Coldplay in Tokyo – I really don’t want to dignify it by calling it a “remix” because it’s really just a live-band approximation of a DJ-heavy EDM track. This one’s especially frustrating coming after “A L I E N S” because it’s pretty much the definition of pandering to the lowest common denominator where the band’s use of electronic music is concerned. I know it was largely the Chainsmokers at the wheel here, with Coldplay as the featured artist – they’re basically the EDM version of Santana in terms of how they use guest vocalists to get people who aren’t otherwise in the genre excited about their records, I figure. And nothing I’ve heard from the Chainsmokers so far – this included – gives me any reason to find them interesting. Basically, throw a pedestrian pop melody and some hackneyed self-empowerment lyrics over a catchy synth hook and you’ve got yourself a Chainsmokers song. I’m really not sure who to blame for these atrocious lyrics, which honestly sound like they could have come from the pen of Chris Martin, given how they go back to that same well of “listing off names of inspirational people who don’t necessarily all belong in the same list”, this time conflating superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man with mythical figures like Achilles… and honestly not getting their best-known attributes anywhere close to correct. The song’s already been raked over the coals by a great many critics who actually pay attention to lyrics, so I don’t have a whole lot new to add here, except to say that for a song which proclaims it wants “something just like this”, it sure puts a whole lot more effort into explaining the things that are not “this”. Simply being a regular guy with no superpowers, and being loved just as you are, appears to be the “this” in question, to the point where I have to wonder why they based their lyrical hook around words that were forced to rhyme with one of the vaguest and laziest words in the songwriting lexicon. Kiss, list, gifts… yeah, sure, I guess “gifts” rhymes with “this” if you pronounce it like Mike Tyson or something. Since this is a live version and I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment, I had to double-dip by listening to the Chainsmokers’ album version (on the aptly titled Memories… Do Not Open) just to see if there was much different going on there, and… eh, not really. The live version might emphasize Coldplay’s guitars and keyboards a little more, but they still can’t get around the glaring lack of weight in the song’s central hook. It’s catchy (annoyingly so… I’ll get this one of all things stuck in my head despite it being the worst track on the EP), but it just doesn’t land with the force that a drop like that in an EDM song ought to. Whoever was behind the mixing board decided to conspicuously pump up the crowd noise every time the band reached that hook in the live version, which is almost as irritating as hearing them sing along to every word of the stupid lyrics. Okay, I get that English is a foreign language to most of this audience; maybe it all sounds as romantically mysterious to them as a bunch of hackneyed lyrics in Japanese would probably sound to me. I can see why this one would be big overseas. It sure makes me wish English were my second language… or better yet, that I didn’t understand it at all.
The closing ballad, which Coldplay insists wasn’t a “single” even though it was released well ahead of the rest of the EP, is labeled here as the “EP mix”, with the only apparent difference being that it’s about half a minute longer than the promo version, for a grand total of about 6:30. I don’t mind Coldplay taking their time here. They’ve got a beautiful melody of intertwining synth and piano that brings to mind a full moon and a starry sky being slowly contemplated while two people sit on a picnic blanket, knocking back their favorite drinks of choice and hoping the night will never end. The mood here is much like “Amazing Day”, which for all of its predictable balladeering, was actually one of my favorite tracks on A Head Full of Dreams. I wouldn’t have minded this one as the closer on that album, but I can imagine they cut it due to the similar mood and lyrical content. Just when I think I’m in the thick of six calming minutes of pure aural bliss, though, Chris Martin has to go and ruin the flow of it with his annoying tendency of cutting off a word halfway through and then repeating it. Remember how he did that in “Para, Para, Paradise?” That at least sort of worked because he could draw out a vowel sound. Here the first line of the chorus is “Now I’m hyp… hypnotized”. This doesn’t work at all in a slow song, because that syllable “hyp” lands with a dull thud, due to there not being a vowel he can believably extend into a long note. And also because it sounds like he’s saying he’s hip, which is exactly the kind of thing an un-hip person would say about themselves. This makes me more likely to have a laugh at the song’s expense than to be swept up in its inherent beauty. The follow up rhyme “Yeah, I trip when I look in your eyes” really isn’t helping its case, either. I think I’d prefer this one as an instrumental, but then again, Martin’s falsetto is really gorgeous at a few points, reminding me that for all of his dorky quirks and his misguided desire to keep his band in the loop with current trends, he can still be an arresting lead vocalist when he really puts his mind to it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
All I Can Think About Is You $1.75
Miracles (Something Special) $.50
A L I E N S $2
Something Just Like This (Tokyo Remix) –$.25
Chris Martin: Lead vocals, piano, organ
Jonny Buckland: Guitar, backing vocals
Will Champion: Drums, backing vocals
Guy Berryman: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: