It’s been over 20 years since “Yellow” introduced the world to Coldplay at its best: hopelessly romantic but not suspicious, full of wonder but grounded in the present. The song’s cymbals crash and its lyrics lament for the stars, but it’s more than just love drivel. Chris Martin’s falsetto may sound mournful, as if the object of his affection has already passed, while guitarist Jonny Buckland’s distorted chords are slightly sour, hinting at the commotion in the surf. Equally poignant is the video “Yellow”, which was filmed on the day of drummer Will Champion’s mother funeral. Martin strolls along a drizzly beach, enticing the sun to rise, making Verve’s misanthropic music video for “Bitter Sweet Symphony” look like an altar boy. In the middle of the video, when he lifts a sleeve over his left eye, it’s unclear whether he’s wiping away a raindrop or a tear.
Since then, Coldplay has often invoked the cosmos – the stars, the moon, planets in general – as they achieved universal sentiments while moving from theaters to arenas to stadiums all around Earth. They also struggled to maintain the mix of paranoia and positivity that fueled their best work; their latest records have gone from misery to ecstasy without examining what’s in between. These two trends – cosmophilia and the abandonment of emotional nuances – reached a strange zenith with their ninth studio album, Music of the Spheres. There is a vague sci-fi concept involving a distant solar system, and Martin said he was inspired by the Cantina Band from the original. Star wars. But the record is more akin to the franchise’s notorious prequels: exaggerated, cartoonish, seemingly made for 8-year-olds. Even Jar Jar Binks himself could look askance at the latest CGI abomination in a Coldplay video, featuring dancing alien ducks among other possibly kidnapped aliens at an off-brand theme park.
Music of the Spheres is produced by Max Martin, who has essentially set the parameters for pop music over the past quarter century. After making a name for himself as the go-to hitmaker of the ’90s teenage pop era, creating career classics with Britney and Backstreet, Max has since teamed up with established superstars like Taylor Swift and the Weeknd, helping them reach unfathomable levels of global popularity while still retaining the quirks that made fans love them in the first place. For their part, Coldplay has never lacked ambition to take over the world, as they have dutifully followed the mainstream of popular music away from traditional rock sounds over the past decade. So this collaboration for the full album makes sense in terms of numbers and numbers, especially in the wake of the group’s timidly modest record in 2019. Daily life, their best-selling LP to date.
The business strategy is already working. Spheres‘new single, “My Universe,” featuring the kings of K-pop BTS, who might be the only humans better on the chart ladder than Max right now, debuted atop the Hot 100, marking Coldplay their second non-American 1. Their first was 2008’s “Viva La Vida”, a song that tactfully developed what Coldplay might sound like after the creative stalemate of their third LP, 2005’s X&Y. At the time, Chris described the Coldplay philosophy this way: “We can’t get bigger, let’s just get better. The noisy vastness of Spheres suggests that the group’s philosophy has been reversed: Coldplay can’t surpass what they’ve already artistically done, but maybe they can score several billion more streams anyway.
For about half of the songs on the album, I wouldn’t be surprised if the creative process involved repeatedly breaking a red game show buzzer with the word “BIG” written on it. With the well-worn interstellar theme of the disc, Spheres‘The enormity unfortunately corresponds to what space exploration has become in real life: another meaningless obstacle for the richest of the rich to cross, a VIP escape hatch. “Humankind” is based on a series of hollow millennial cries, between chords of Springsteen plasticine; any gesture, no action. “Higher Power” attempts to reuse the 80s coked sounds of “Blinding Lights” produced by Weeknd’s Max for a group that has already made a pact to fire any member who has taken up cocaine. Featuring the din of a singing crowd, the synth-pop infill track “Infinity Sign” seems uniquely designed to play in the background of a FIFA the video game menu screen.
But wait, it gets worse! “People of the Pride” is the roughest thing here, a midlife crisis jock jam where Buckland’s supposedly scrupulous guitar riff is filtered through what must be a plugin called “Dank Robot Fart”. In the song, Chris protests against a vague figure of a dictator who “takes his time” from a “house cuckoo clock” that he “makes us walk”. I think we can all agree that bossy tyrants are bad, but so is this glorified Twitter rant.
Here’s the part of the Coldplay review where we have to discuss Chris’s eternally frustrating lyrics. To his credit, the singer admitted that he is not a great lyricist and that his writing comes down to “just a bunch of feelings”. Which would seem to fit well with the kind of pop of instant pleasure that Max is known for. But Max is also the ancestor of “melodic math”, a songwriting style where each line requires a certain number of syllables in order to maximize its melodic impact. Squeezing the most effective earworms possible sometimes means that intelligence or novelty gets steamed. Combined with Chris’ already sketchy writing and clenched-fisted instrumentation on the album, this results in songs that don’t identify a feeling but rather wave their arms helplessly in the direction of one.
“Let Somebody Go,” a duet with Selena Gomez, is a contemporary adult ballad apparently from the Bryan Adams archives in which the couple mop aimlessly until they decide “It hurts like that, to leave someone go”. I can’t argue with this. The knot of “humanity” involves the revelation that humans can be … kind. Thanks to Max’s demanding formulas, a lot of these choruses will likely end up shaking your head as you try to fall asleep, but they’re so insane you might blame them for being there as well.
There are a few moments when these banalities briefly become transcendent. “My Universe,” which follows a musical pattern similar to that of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” moves forward with the giddiness of cursed infatuation. “You are my universe, and I just wanna put you on fi-i-primeChris proclaims, adding an unusual finesse to the last word, as Mick Jagger might. Coupled with synths big enough to be seen from the moon, an energetic BTS turn and a blog-house outro that came out of nothing. On the other hand, the song comes out of its market-tested shell and offers a fleeting discharge of happiness.
The best song on the album, “Biutyful”, is also the most bittersweet. Guided by a simple acoustic guitar figure and unfussy hip-hop rhythm, this is the rare Spheres track which has all the space to consider itself. Chris reacts with his most touching vocal performance on the entire record, nostalgic and enchanting, which is particularly impressive as he spends half of the song sounding like a squeaky alien. “Biutyful” is an ode to unconditional love, perhaps between parent and child, that doesn’t scream at you as much as it lets you linger inside its dreamy gravity. “When you love me, love me, love me,” Chris sings, “I know I’ll be on top of the world, man.” It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but the magic of this more powerful sounding band has everything to do with their ability to turn something you’ve heard before – a phrase, a guitar echo – into something. that you want to hear. and even.
There are too few of these bright spots, however. Instead, the record is more accurately represented by the video from “Higher Power,” where Chris walks towards the camera in a way that might remind you of the first time you saw him. But he’s not on a beach, or even on this planet. He’s on a sorry orb called (check the notes) Kaotica, surrounded by a Blade runner algorithm of a cityscape and dancing like the last living wedding singer. There isn’t much to see in his eyes other than, perhaps, despair.
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