Coldplay has been one of the most popular bands in the world for 15 years, an observation that seems banal until you realize almost none of their contemporaries can make that claim. More exciting and innovative bands have come and gone; Coldplay remains, distilling complex sounds into more palatable, sentimental packages. You can call Chris Martin & co. hokey, watered-down, and cynical — and God knows people have — but you can’t accuse them of not trying: every new Coldplay album takes risks, tries to push the band’s sound in a different direction. It leads to an interesting contradiction: a band that’s the musical equivalent of Ikea is also daring and creatively restless.
The foundations of every Coldplay record are Martin’s earnest bleat and a radiant, irrepressible optimism regarding life and the people in it. The guy will always get the girl (or the guy, if that’s what he wants); they’ll heal each other’s broken hearts and mend each other’s wounds; their love will win over the doubters, transcend borders and barriers, even cheat death. It’s the quality that leads people to characterize Martin as a gregarious doofus, but it’s also his greatest strength. The rediscovery of that optimism after a few years in the wilderness is what makes A Head Full of Dreams, the band’s newest LP and seventh overall, a worthwhile experience. Slashing through the weeds of his personal life has only strengthened Martin’s resolve regarding the planet’s fundamental goodness.
You can hear his doubt on Ghost Stories, the full-length released last year that constitutes the band’s creative and commercial low point. Written in the wake of Martin’s much-ridiculed "conscious uncoupling" with Gwyneth Paltrow, the album is downcast, deliberately morose, and stuffed with lyrical clunkers. Shades of James Blake and Bon Iver hung over the record like specters, but the music lacked their finesse and tunefulness. A Head Full of Dreams brings color and joy back into the band’s composition, and producers Rik Simpson and Stargate — the same Norwegian wizards behind Beyoncé’s "Irreplaceable" and a handful of Rihanna hits, among others — have rendered every instrument luminous.
It’s remarkable how far Coldplay have moved from the Radiohead and Oasis ripoffs that vaulted their 2000 debut Parachutes into the public consciousness, though A Head Full of Dreams sounds less like Drake, DJ Snake, and Lil Jon than Martin would have you believe. It’s been a decade since describing them as a "rock band" made sense; they probably left that phrase behind when they called in Brian Eno to refine the curious art-pop on 2008’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. The underrated Mylo Xyloto had more in common with the chirpy, synth-laden alt-pop of Passion Pit and M83 than anything on rock radio.
This new album cribs from disco on its best tracks — the title track and single "Adventure of a Lifetime" could both use extended mixes post-haste — and hip-hop and R&B elsewhere. There are nods toward the drunken, grayscale pop of Sia and Tove Lo; the latter lends a helping hand on the wistful "Fun." (I tweeted yesterday that this album sounds like Arcade Fire’s Reflektor "if Reflektor was actually good"; that sounds like unrepentant trolling, but I truly believe it.)
Martin's feeling himself a bit too much in spots
There are moments on this album where the band’s ambition — and Martin’s confidence — lead them into hubristic mistakes. (To put it another way, Martin is feeling himself a bit too much in spots.) Interlude "Kaleidoscope" uses poet Coleman Barks and a sample of President Obama to link the universal and the personal; it’s pretty but incongruous. The haunted R&B of hidden track "X Marks the Spot" would’ve been dated around Mylo Xyloto’s release, meaning it stinks like sour milk on an album being released in 2015. And securing a contribution from Beyoncé on "Hymn for the Weekend" only to relegate her to wispy background duty is either a shameful waste of resources or a borderline felony.
All of that is true, and yet this album’s central message — you can find happiness again after suffering through devastating personal trauma — is both generous and hugely appealing. Paltrow contributes backing vocals to "Everglow," a serene ballad about recognizing the beauty and value in a part of your life you’ve left behind; her presence on the song, and implicit endorsement of that sentiment, feels more impactful than every bit of gleeful schadenfreude the media indulged in during their split. (In a purely musical sense, the quality of Ghost Stories is argument enough for Martin’s happiness.)
He's a handsome, wealthy populist with famous pals
Martin explained the thought process behind "Everglow" to Zane Lowe by talking about a day spent in the ocean with a surfer, from whom he nicked the word; he even put on a dumb surfer voice. It was a moment that explains a lot of the vitriol directed at Martin and his band. He’s a handsome, wealthy populist with a ton of famous friends, and he makes music that boils down other people’s innovation into sweeter syrup. It’s a lot easier to believe the world is an innately positive place when you’re handsome, wealthy, and famous. It’s also easy to lose your sense of curiosity, which Martin stubbornly refuses to do. A Head Full of Dreams is experimental in its own sweet way, and it’s genuinely uplifting. If you still think this band is cynical, you haven’t been paying attention.