Coldplay ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ – Review

21 Dec

Firstly, let’s dispel the idea that Coldplay are boring. They have been consistently more adventurous than many people have given them credit for. What started off on ‘Parachutes’ as simple, lush acoustic balladry was expanded and amplified through ‘Rush of Blood to the Head’s post-punk soundscapes and ‘X&Y’s bloated anthems. If that initial trilogy served as a lesson in steady musical development then the albums since have been master classes in consolidating success through brave reinvention. Not convinced? Compare their three biggest selling singles, ‘Paradise’, ‘Viva la Vida’ and ‘Yellow’ – they sound nothing like one another. Most recently, there was ‘Ghost Stories’, a lovely if somewhat slight record that will be best remembered as the one that tried to reimagine the break up album as the ‘conscious uncoupling’ album.

‘Ghost Stories’ was the build up and ‘Head Full of Dreams’ is the release. It’s a musical embodiment of that euphoric rush you get when you realise the worst is over and things are starting to get better. As such it’s filled with vague platitudes and optimistic waffle along the lines of ‘we don’t need words, we’ll be birds’ and ‘try and see the forest there in every seed’. For most most naturally cynical rock fans this would be unappealing but Coldplay have always pumped their songs with saccharine guff and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm. The problem is that if anything it’s too watered down this time around. There isn’t anything as brilliantly silly as ‘I want to be a comma instead of a full stop’ or as amusingly perplexing as ‘if you could see it then you’d understand’. Nor is there a line as bluntly powerful as ‘for you I’d bleed myself dry’ or ‘I will try to fix you.’ It’s all soft edges and mushy nothingness and Coldplay treat the material with far more reverence and seriousness than it truthfully deserves.

But this is Coldplay’s seventh album and it bares all the hallmarks of a band with six number one albums and two number one singles under their belts. The songwriting is solid and the production is glimmering and exquisite throughout. Despite the variety of styles and assortment of sounds nothing makes the band fall flat on their face. If you think about it, it’s actually quite amazing that they can turn their hand to pop, EDM, r&b and indie and never sound out of their depth. In fact, despite their love of sounding like other bands, they always sound utterly Coldplay-ish. They are a hugely accomplished band with an undervalued experimental streak and an even larger populist sensibility that makes ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ enjoyable from start to finish.

There is interesting diversity on ‘Head Full of Dreams’; ‘Up and up’ sneakily borrows a melody from 5ive’s ‘Keep on Moving’ of all places (Chris Martin once admitted to being a Take that fan, now we know they weren’t the only boy band he listens to). ‘Amazing Day’ and ‘Afterglow’ are positively ethereal with a glittering assortment of synths and fluorescent guitar licks. ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ is vaguely psychedelic, ‘Army of One’ hiccups its way to the heavens and ‘Birds’ propels itself there like an arrow through a blue sky.

Previously it’s been easiest to describe the sound of Coldplay albums by referencing other artists – U2, Oasis, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Bon Iver – their blatant borrowing has always been cheeky and acknowledged. But this is the first Coldplay album where the easiest comparison to make is with Coldplay themselves, and I don’t mean this positively. It certainly isn’t their first album to be overly referential to the past, but it is the first to sound overly referential to THEIR past. ‘Hymn for the weekend’ features Beyonce and isn’t half as memorable as the equally exuberant ‘Princess of China’, which featured a far more daring appearance by Rihanna. Likewise, the unmemorable lead single ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ feels like an almost cut and paste remake of ‘Paradise’. ‘Birds’ and ‘Up and Up’ could no doubt be played in sync to resemble ‘Up with the Birds’ from ‘Mylo Xylto’. Only the unusual ‘X Marks the Spot’ seeks out genuinely new ground but it’s only interesting to the extent that it’s novel and unsettling to hear a white bread Coldplay melody over the top of a trap beat. Otherwise the day-glow synths and chiming guitars, lovely as they are, are tried and tested features going back to the Viva la Vida days

It’s as hard to imagine someone listening to this and hating it as it is to imagine somebody loving it. It is that word so regularly ridiculed and readily associated with Coldplay – nice. The band hedge all their bets and the result is a thoroughly well made, moderately interesting pop record. But It’s also their most underwhelming album to date. The reserved ‘Ghost Stories’ had more going for it; an obvious concept, interesting backstory and the sense that something new was being attempted.

For a band as politically active and in thrall to U2 as Coldplay are, they are totally apolitical when it comes to their actual music. It’s particularly noticeable on ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ because it reminds you what an excellent communicator Chris Martin is – if only he’d use that to skill to a more useful end on this album. He’s a master at feeling something, expressing that feeling and imparting it on the listener. Maybe you can remember the joy you felt singing along to ‘Clocks’ in a muddy field in Glastonbury or the heartbreak you experienced alone in your room listening to ‘Fix You’ for the first time. His voice and melodies are almost beyond compare. However, the lack of import or meaning at the core of ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ ultimately leaves it an insignificant destination and one I probably won’t be returning to. It has a beautiful, silky surface but, surprisingly for a Coldplay album, it’s hollow at the core.

6/10

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