Last modified on Thursday 3 December 2015 19.03 EST
ew albums in recent memory have suffered from more dispiriting advance publicity than Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams. It came not from the sources that dispiriting advance publicity about albums usually does – not from snarky music journalists, or a candid interview revealing that its recording was unbridled misery and the end product a disappointment – but from the celebrity gossip press, in which Chris Martin has been unlucky enough to find himself a permanent fixture since his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow. It was April when Heat magazine offered some white-hot intelligence on Martin’s creative stimulus for the follow-up to Ghost Stories, courtesy of one of those “unnamed insiders” they’re always quoting. “He tells friends there’s no better way to find song inspiration than experiencing sexual chemistry with another human. He’s pretty much written an entire album of his love escapades since he officially became single.”
That idea seems so ghastly that it’s hard not to wonder whether the whole thing was not some kind of demented fabrication, but counter-intelligence deliberately planted by Coldplay themselves, on the grounds that whatever they were in the process of coming up with couldn’t possibly be as awful as that. And so it proves with A Head Full of Dreams, on which the production seat once occupied by Brian Eno and electronic auteur Jon Hopkins is given over to Stargate: any Coldplay fans of the Real-Music-Played-By-Real-Musicians bent, horrified to find the quartet working with the Norwegian team responsible for, among other things, Rihanna’s Umbrella, Katy Perry’s Firework and Ylvis’ novelty hit What Does The Fox Say, might console themselves with the fact that at least they’re not listening to an entire album of Chris Martin’s “love escapades”. But actually, you are sporadically assailed by the terrible fear that some of the lyrics might be about that very topic – that the Adventure of a Lifetime alluded to in one title might involve the newly single frontman swashbuckling his way through a variety of conquests, among them the lady he approvingly, if oddly, compares to both the Pyramids and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in Army of One. But frankly, it’s almost impossible to tell: for once, Martin’s inability to write in anything other than cliches and generalisations feels like a small mercy rather than a black mark.
There’s something appealing about Coldplay throwing in their lot with unashamed makers of manufactured pop. It seems to involve a tacit acknowledgement that the band’s real strength lies not in the handing out of windy platitudes, but the writing of hook-laden melodies; a recognition that the best thing about, say, 2011’s Mylo Xyloto wasn’t its terrible futuristic dystopia concept, but the tune of Princess of China. Certainly, A Head Full of Dreams is at its best when Coldplay stick to the brief suggested by Stargate’s presence.
The title track adds some pep to the tried-and-tested Coldplay formula – echoing guitars, bombastic piano, massed, stadium-rousing woah-oh vocals – by tying it to a disco pulse, while Hymn for the Weekend bowls along on an R&Bish beat. It’s one of several tracks that features a hook made from a vocal cut up into an unintelligible loop, an idea derived from MK’s mid-90s remix of the Nightcrawlers’ Push the Feeling On and currently voguish with pop producers, although this being an album made in the rarefied environs of the musical aristocracy, the unintelligible voice has been provided by Beyoncé. Not all the album’s pop dabblings work – the hidden track X Marks the Spot features another R&B-inspired beat, and a lyric about putting your hands up in the sky delivered in a curious mid-Atlantic drawl that you fear may be the sound of Chris Martin “being funky” – but there’s a quite charming crispness and lightness of touch about something like Birds, with its snappy early-80s drum machine pattern and brusque ending, or indeed Fun. The latter song seems to be a more measured response to the Paltrow-Martin separation than the gloom of Ghost Stories, rosily recalling the good times before the Conscious Uncoupling – you can almost picture the cosy evenings in, curled up with a romantic glass or two of dandelion leaf and lacinato kale juice – and ending with a teasing line clearly aimed at the kind of magazines big on quotes from unnamed insiders: “But then, maybe we could again.”
Adventure of a Lifetime – behind the scenes on the set of Coldplay new video
This stuff is a lot more appealing than the moments when Coldplay revert to type. Our old pal the windy platitude blows in once more on Kaleidoscope, a musical interlude featuring not merely a sample of Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace, but a booming voice reading out Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī’s The Guest House, a poem popular with the manufacturers of motivational posters featuring soft-focus photos of sunrises and mountains in mist. Everglow, meanwhile, is the kind of nondescript piano ballad that amounts to Coldplay sounding the way that people who hate Coldplay think Coldplay sound.
To which Coldplay might reasonably respond: yeah, smartarse, and it’s also the kind of nondescript piano ballad that has shifted us 80m albums. Like their Eno-abetted attempt at experimentation on 2008’s Viva La Vida, A Head Full of Dreams is frustratingly blighted by the sense that Coldplay haven’t fully committed to the album’s big idea: they keep deviating from the Stargate pop plan to knock out stuff like Amazing Day, which has a guitar line brazenly pinched from John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy theme and is self-evidently going to turn up soundtracking clip montages on sports programmes and reality shows for the rest of eternity. It’s a moot point whether that’s a sign of innate conservatism or of a band that know exactly what they are doing, who understand that you won’t keep packing out those Midwestern sports stadiums if you frighten the horses. As it is, there doesn’t seem much chance of Coldplay performing to empty seats in the immediate future.
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