Coldplay have always been relatively easy targets for critical opprobrium. It comes with the territory of being one of the biggest bands in the world. And, after 20 years or so, that’s a title that Chris Martin and company can easily lay claim to.
The fact remains that they’re very good at what they do. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, there are no greater examples of stadium rock anthems like Viva Da Vida or a ballad that can pluck your heartstrings like The Scientist. Yet over the last few years, their creative spark seems to have flickered a little.
Their last album Everyday Life was their best for some time. Bold in places, it was confident enough to sound like a demo tape in places, nodding at genres like doo-wop and bringing in Femi Kuti to provide horn arrangements. Perhaps not coincidentally, Everyday Life was also Coldplay’s worst selling record, so it’s a case of going back to basics on Music Of The Spheres.
This time round, Coldplay are playing it very safe indeed. Swedish pop supremo Max Martin has produced the whole album, and the guest spots seem to have been chosen on the basis of how many Spotify streams they’d produce, resulting in names like Selena Gomez and Korean boy band phenomenon BTS. The result is an album which sounds über-professional, polished… and, sadly, rather dull.
It does get off to a good start though with Higher Power – the sort of effortless, feel-good pop-dance anthem that Martin could produce in his sleep. Like similar Coldplay songs A Sky Full Of Stars and Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall, it has that euphoric rush that the band are so good at creating. Moments like that though, are few and far between.
People Of The Pride is an awkward rocker with a guitar riff that’s desperately aping Muse or Kasabian, with Martin dropping the F-bomb and earnestly singing lines “we’ve got to stand up to be counted”. If it wasn’t for the fact that this sort of swaggering lad-rock was at its peak about 10 years ago, it would be considered a brave departure. In 2021, it sounds a bit long in the tooth.
It’s not the only mis-step – Biutyful does have a lovely melody but it’s rendered almost unlistenable by the curious decision to pitch-shift Martin’s voice for the first half of the song. Let Somebody Go, the duet with Gomez, fares much better (Martin and Gomez’s voices work really well together) but the saccharine nature of the lyrics (yes, Chris genuinely does sing “I loved you to the moon and back again”) leaves a bad taste. Thankfully, My Universe, where BTS show up to provide guest vocals, is suitably stirring, although the entire song leaves a slightly queasy feeling, as if Coldplay have decided that a surefire way to get to Number 1 is to hitch their star to that of bands 20 years younger than them.
Then there’s the entire concept behind it all. For Music Of The Spheres is no ordinary album. It takes the notion of what music would sound like on other planets (the answer is, if you’re wondering, a bit like Coldplay). There’s a fictional system of planets involved, some tracks are represented by emojis for reasons best known to the band, and every now and again, there’ll be a reference in the lyrics to meeting other species. As on Humankind, which genuinely concludes with the idea that “we’re only human, but we’re capable of kindness, so they call us humankind”. That sound you hear is the sound of a million palms rising to a face in unison.
There are moments on Music Of The Spheres where you can be pleasantly surprised. Coloratura is 10 minutes long and is a suitably epic closing track that twists and turns everywhere, while Human Heart is warm without being cloying, thanks to the harmonies of We Are King and the contributions of Jacob Collier. If there’s a song on here that’s going to be Christmas Number 1, it’d be this one.
Certainly there are some interesting moments on Music From The Spheres. But overall it’s the sound of Coldplay treading water. More alarmingly, it begins to sound like they’re trying not to drown.