Once upon a time, Coldplay made us wait three years between albums. This sort of creative hibernation allowed the band to tour the world with ever-expanding stage spectacles, hone their craft as performers, and return to the studio with a fresh perspective on their sound. But all good things must come to an end, unfortunately, and Coldplay’s musical prosperity screeches to a halt on A Head Full of Dreams.
Arriving just one and a half years after the contemplative and dour Ghost Stories, the new record aims to be the light at the end of the tunnel that was frontman Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” with longtime beau Gwyneth Paltrow. Instead, it’s a mostly trite affair that salvages parts from the band’s more adventurous and successful releases, particularly the stately grandeur of 2008’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends and the technicolor wizardry of 2011’s Mylo Xyloto. That’s not to say A Head Full of Dreams brings nothing new to the table—collaborations with Norwegian super-producers Stargate and R&B queen bee Beyoncé are sure to raise an eyebrow, and a few unexpected departures make for some of the only successful moments on this record. But for what’s been teased as “a bit like a finale, or a final scene,” A Head Full of Dreams falls short.
In interview after interview, Martin’s emphasized the contribution of each band member to the success of this record, and he’s not wrong. Guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and drummer Will Champion have always been competent at worst and tremendous at best, and they certainly have moments to shine on Dreams. Early highlight “Birds” immerses itself in Buckland’s shimmering, entrancing arpeggios, while the lead single “Adventure of a Lifetime” owes its success to Berryman and Champion’s newfound fascination with rock-solid disco grooves.
The missing link, then, must be Chris Martin, and as a once-ardent defender of the frontman’s more saccharine indulgences, it pains me to agree. Even on his weakest work, Martin had a penchant for the warmth and approachability that is sorely lacking in today’s overly self-aware music scene. Dreams, then, demonstrates the limits of what obliviousness we can accept as charming before it barrels off into idiocy. With song titles like “Hymn for the Weekend,” “Fun,” and “Amazing Day,” Martin’s childlike fascination with the wonders of the world has never been so nauseating.
It’s as if the frontman can’t help but stumble over cliches in a desperate attempt to restore the band’s euphoric glory days. With his crisp tenor front and center in the mix, it’s all too obvious just how much Martin strains to make his hackneyed syllables fit into equally predictable melodies. Take one listen to his delivery on the opening couplet of “Everglow” and you’ll find it impossible to ignore: “Oh, they say people come, say people go / This particular diamond was extra special.” Sloppy craft like this was few and far between on Coldplay’s previous records (save for 2005’s mostly forgettable X&Y) but it’s abundant on Dreams. Even more distressing is how much Martin’s vocals suffer across the board, his pitch and timing less accurate than ever.
But music is about more than performance and craft, right? What’s the message behind this record? Well, Martin claims influence from the Persian poet Rumi and his poem “The Guest House”, references to and passages of which are sprinkled throughout the album in a failed attempt at cohesion. The spacey interlude “Kaleidoscope” features noted interpreter Coleman Barks reciting a portion of the poem:
“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Because each has been sent
As a guide”
It’s certainly a beautiful and profound passage, but one that bears no consequence on the musical proceedings at hand. The album is all joy and no pain, all celebration and no reflection, an anesthetized wash of good vibes and smiley faces. In an especially damning moment, the opening title track jumps ahead to a climax it never earned, with “whoa-oh-oh” singalong chants apropos of nothing. Triumphant releases like these used to mean something on a Coldplay record.
And yet, for all the yawn-inducing indifference on Dreams, there are some reminders of what made this band such a satisfying listen for so many years. The aforementioned “Birds” transforms tranquility to full-on flight, all set to a toe-tappingly quick rhythm. “Hymn for the Weekend” uses the equally commanding blares of a horn section and Beyoncé’s voice to great effect, transforming what was almost a generic club anthem to a spiritual and romantic awakening. And “Army of One” remixes the epic church organ vibes of “Fix You” into an undulating ode to romantic devotion before departing into the interlude “X Marks the Spot,” a strikingly minimalist affair that’s sure to divide the band’s fan base.
The record closes with “Up&Up”, a gospel-flavored would-be epic that Martin claimed the band’s been trying to write for 15 years. Jonny Buckland and Noel Gallagher lend cutting guitar solos, the legendary Merry Clayton (of “Gimme Shelter” fame) belts away on backing vocals, and a generic but undeniable chorus of “We’re gonna get it, get it together, I know” anchors the whole affair. It’s enjoyable enough, but a far cry from the more visceral power of previous anthems like “Viva la Vida” and “Fix You” and even “Yellow.” And really, that’s this album in a nutshell: it’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. There may be a lot of heart on A Head Full of Dreams, but there isn’t much soul.