Review: Coldplay Are All Too Eager to Exit Gracefully With ‘A Head Full of Dreams’
Release Date: December 4, 2015
If this is indeed Coldplay’s final album, as frontman Chris Martin has implied in interviews, then no band this massive — like, Super Bowl massive — will have ever undergone a dissolution this quiet. For 15 years, the quartet’s brand has been stasis, and it would be fitting that their breakup should occur as unceremoniously as every other aspect of their career has. Martin compared seventh album A Head Full of Dreams to the “seventh Harry Potter book,” and it’s clear that he wants the band’s swan song to be viewed sentimentally but not dramatically, not to be questioned any more than why a book series has to have a final entry. But if anything, Dreams proves the band is maybe a little bit too OK with quitting while they’re ahead, resulting in an album that’s lovely — the day Coldplay can’t do “lovely,” we’re all really in trouble — but complacent, predictable, and a little bit boring.
Yeah, yeah, stop the presses. Coldplay album boring? Next you’ll say that the new Jack White album is stubbornly rockist! But here’s the thing: Coldplay haven’t actually been boring for a long time. For all their reputation as a bunch of MOR vanilla-peddling scones, these are dudes whose arguably best album was co-produced by Brian Eno, whose best guitar riff was nicked from Kraftwerk, and whose best song of recent years had “extra magic” provided by Jon Hopkins. They’re one of the few bands whose EDM-boom-era dabblings in progressive house felt like a natural extension of melodic and sonic elements already present in their music, rather than a complete about-face or shameless zeitgeist-grab. The reason they’ve always scanned as bland within the dwindling rock world is they same reason they’ve maintained their extreme popularity. Unlike the overwhelming majority of notable bands after the punk era, they don’t define themselves in opposition to anyone. But that lack of musical elitism has also allowed their music to draw from a much richer sonic palette than most of their peers, and allowed them to adjust their aural color scheme for each album while still maintaining their essential chromosomal language.
The problem with A Head Full of Dreams is that it’s the band’s first album to feel like it’s looking backwards. Previously maligned Coldplay LPs like 2005’s X&Y and last year’s Ghost Stories were not without their flaws, but their perspectives were undeniably distinct from their more blockbuster-like predecessors. Ghost Stories in particular may have alienated fans and critics with its draggy pacing and relative lack of emotional catharsis for a Breakup Album, but with its downcast production and lightly yearning melodies, it was a strangely effective album for solo late-night listening. If there’s a wavelength on which Head is particularly powerful, though, it’s not easily apparent — it plays more like an unenthused rediscovery of past prizes than an album with its own specific code to be unlocked.
The obvious narrative thread to the album would be as a Grand Finale, and it certainly seemed like that was the scale Coldplay were going for when the list of album guests was revealed to include names like Beyoncé, Noel Gallagher, Martin’s ex-wife Gwenyth Paltrow, and eventually even President Obama himself via a recurring sample of his “Amazing Grace” rendition. The most startling thing about Head is how unobtrusively each of these cameo appearances skate by — Paltrow gets just a line of backing vocals lost in the slow-train chug of “Everglow,” Bey’s appearances on the intro and outro of “Hymn to the Weekend” are uncharacteristically innocuous, and Obama’s voice is muddled and unrecognizable. Amazingly, despite all of the big names present, the only collaborator to really make an impression is Swedish breakout singer/songwriter Tove Lo, whose chilly upper-register twists tenderly around Martin’s pleading on the chorus to thanks-for-the-memories ballad “Fun.”
The deceptive lack of star power would be less of an issue if there was more here to break up the album’s mid-tempo monotony. With typically tempered prose, Martin teased that the album would be full of songs to “shuffle your feet to,” but after the U2-derived chest-beating of the titular opener and the Preatures-like micro-boogie of the following “Bird,” few tracks could inspire even that visceral a physical reaction. The lone exception is the sublime lead single “Adventure of a Lifetime,” whose Stargate-aided trop-pop grooves sadly turn out to be a red herring amidst the Ryan Tedder-like plod of the great majority of other tracks. Even Avicii’s helping hand can’t lend the heavy sway of “Hymn for the Weekend” the release it seeks, the song’s claims of “I’m feeling drunk and high” coming off as particularly insincere — Coldplay’s thrills have always been sober ones, much closer to a first glimpse of the Grand Canyon than a first time being passed an unfamiliar pill. Ghost Stories might have placed you in a partially uncomfortable zone, but there are pockets of Dreams that you can zone out on altogether.
Martin introduced a recent live performance of Dreams closer “Up&Up” as the song the band had “been waiting 15 years to write,” and that sounds true in the most literal sense — the lighter-waver comes off as nostalgic and comforting and just short of soaring, and definitively final, like the song the band had always known would be their career-capper. It’s a graceful goodbye, but an uninspiring one, merely redolent of past U.K. rock glories; the gospel-tinged “We’re gonna get it together” outro glances at Primal Scream without approaching Screamadelica’s rapture, while Saint Noel stopping by to bless the proceedings with a guitar solo just to remind you how much more exciting it was when he and Paul Weller traded riff explosions on a different seven-minute closer 20 years ago. It seems unfair that what might be the band’s final will and testament on record will be one that supports erroneous claims that they were never more than derivative post-Britpop hucksters. We’ll miss Coldplay when they go, but not really for this album.