Too many smug music connoisseurs see Coldplay as a harmless and inconsequential mainstream pop group. The critical generosity extended to many modern pop musicians – a hijacking of anti-sellout culture in the 1990s and 2000s – does not extend to Coldplay, which rose to prominence at the height of this skepticism. To these people, I usually have a response, “You don’t like the band that wrote ‘Clocks’?
You know the band: “Clocks”, “Yellow”, “The Scientist”, “Fix You”, “Viva La Vida”: a framework of the first Coldplay tunes which are essentially standards at this stage. Straightforward, precise and beautifully produced pop songs that can get an arena singing. Comments on their YouTube videos speak of the beauty of the world around us. This is their alley.
But the truth is, Coldplay hasn’t been down that road for a long time, and their latest release, Music of the Spheres, takes them even further as they try to replicate those old feelings. A concept album about a fictional and distant solar system, the album ostensibly tries to make a statement about the unity of humanity. Aesthetically, it’s a deeper foray into brilliant pop to show our interdependence, much like 2015. A head full of dreams meets space.
The major flaw in Music of the Spheres it’s that he puts a lot of effort into telling us that humans have this capacity for love and kindness, sometimes in too sweet terms, without making us feel it. “Humankind,” a downright heartless song whose instrumentation is far from inspiring, ends with the lyrics, “We’re only human / But we are capable of kindness / So they call us humanity.” Great material for a poster for a third grade class, but not really meaningful to anyone else.
This demotivated feeling dominates the record, as we are served tracks like “My Universe”, which is lent a minimum of excitement via a BTS feature, “Higher Power” and “Biutyful”. These tracks aim for energetic pop but just get cheesy. Perhaps the biggest offender is “Infinity Sign”, which features a cold synthpop in addition to a weak recording of the vocals “Olé Olé Olé” for perhaps unknowable reasons.
It seems like Coldplay has missed a fundamental part of what makes them what they are: They write music that people want to come together to. This comparison to their previous work is not a question of quality – I’m not saying there aren’t any songs on Music of the Spheres that stack up to “The Scientist” (although there isn’t one). It’s more a question of position: like A head full of dreams, Coldplay is in tell mode instead of show – relentlessly telling us that we are one, without instilling any of the feelings and hearts that U.S United. Especially in 2021, I want to feel it, not just to say it.
This does not mean that this feeling is totally absent. “Let Somebody Go” is a passable read of this kind of material. It’s a meditation on breaking up a relationship and the love involved in walking away – certainly not a new idea, but it does bring the chords closer to the position we’re used to hearing from. Coldplay. When I listen to it, I feel a connection to the band – and to the other listeners – much stronger than on “Human Kind” or “Human Heart”.
A surprise bonus point for this record is its aesthetic diversity; sometimes listening to a lot of Coldplay becomes repetitive, so much I appreciate the group. Corn Music of the Spheres balances the different sounds well, especially in the middle of the record. While the songs aren’t always exceptionally convincing, the ballad’s movement from “Let Somebody Go”, from minimalist and densely layered “(Human Heart)” to darker, battered “People of the Pride” continues. Music of the Spheres at least dynamic.
The closing track, “Coloratura”, is over ten minutes long, by far the longest song Coldplay has ever recorded. Something of a prog-pop opus, the track takes a lot of structural risks that allow it to reach a surprising level of intimacy. It’s still a bit too lyrical, but the variations in tone, as well as the band’s climactic use of retro instrumentation, at least leave us with a sparkle of Coldplay’s sparkle.