Coldplay originally fell to the altar of their influences before finding their voice. Now they rip off other songs so blatantly that you wonder if a lawsuit is waiting around the corner.
"While Martin says A Head Full Of Dreams as 'a bit like a finale, or a final scene' for the band, he insists the group aren't breaking up -- nor does he have any ambitions to do a solo album. 'If I ever do that, text me and say, Chris, you've officially lost it. That would just be awful. I need to be surrounded by people that can tell me to fuck off. [laughs]'" --Entertainment Weekly (23 Nov 2015)
"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!" --Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi, "The Guest House"
Fifteen years ago, Coldplay's Chris Martin walked along the pre-dawn beach of Studland Bay and won the admiration of millions with one simple, fatally romantic pledge: "You know I'd bleed myself dry".
It was simple, it was sweet, and it launched Coldplay straight into the spotlight, starting in the UK top ten and reaching only greater heights from there on. The group's previous singles and EPs were an unremarkable amalgam of all their influences (including blatant and obvious Radiohead worship that would carry throughout the rest of their career) but Parachutes, that unabashed, smarter-than-its-years debut album, arrived with a distinct voice, a true sense of purpose, and numerous examples of understated-yet-effective songcraft. With the release of 2002's massive followup A Rush of Blood to the Head, the group made the occasional mainstream concession while still staying true to their vision, selling out U2-sized concert tours while deftly dodging accusations of just selling out. They were adored by millions. They won numerous Grammys. They seemed to straddle that line between tangible art and populist commerce with an ease that afforded to only the rarest, and arguably even greatest, of acts.
And now, here's a music video of them fucking around as breakdancing monkeys:
As the glossy dance-funk lead single to A Head Full of Dreams, the band's long-in-the-planning and possibly-maybe (and at this point hopefully) final album, it certainly could be worse, but sweet Yorke it could be better. It's surprisingly easy to pinpoint where things started going wrong, as the bloated, recital-ready mega-seller that was 2005's X & Y found the boys creatively lapping themselves for the first time ever, which they acknowledged and remedied by forcing themselves through a drastic change in the form of the colorful, energetic Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, another massive hit but also a much-needed rebirth for a group that grew too big for their own good (hell, even Martin admitted in the press that his lyrics were getting bad). Even though the album wasn't perfect, at least its lesser moments were interesting in one way or another, which is more than could be said for 2011's Mylo Xyloto, which played as Controversy to Viva's Dirty Mind: the decent but underwhelming sequel to an important creative breakthrough. Despite their day-glo production techniques and chant-along choruses, even Coldplay started getting bored with being Coldplay, and by the time the group's inevitable attempt at a sad-sack breakup album occurred (2014's bleak Ghost Stories) copping poses from the likes of Jon Hopkins, the xx, and Zedd still wasn't enough to overcome an endless barrage of "conscious uncoupling" jokes, resulting in what turned out to be their lowest-selling album ever.
It's for this reason that A Head Full of Dreams arrives burdened by expectations, as the group is back to "having fun" again even as rumors swirl about the band bowing out after this is over (the quote at the start of this article refutes everything Martin has been telling the media for the past several years). So why is it that for a majority of its running time, Martin and friends feel the need to rip off other, better songs and expect no one to notice?
Although the disc's eponymous opening salvo, despite excessive Edge guitar tone fetishizing, turns out to be both funky and remarkably unpretentious, it's the first big ballad "Everglow" where things take a turn for the curious. Built off of simple percussion and a slow-build piano, the song sets itself up as a big weeper, with Martin pulling lines straight out of his diary ("Life is is as short / As the falling snow / And oh, I'm gonna miss you / I know") and the rest of the band recalling elements from previous releases, starting with the echo-location pings that they used on Ghost Stories and ending with guitarist Jonny Buckland recreating the exact same chord progression he used on "Fix You" from X & Y. Maybe the band is being winkingly self-referential here, but wait: what is it about the main melody that sounds familiar? The more it racks around in your brain, the more it sounds like something you've heard before. You may dig through your library to try and find it, but soon you discover a strange and hard-to-accept truth: did Coldplay just straight-up rip off Lee Ann Womack?
With a heavy heart and an arched eyebrow, the answer is yes: those chords, and even that chorus, evokes the ghost of Womack's signature song from 1999, "I Hope You Dance", a little too close for comfort. It's an unusual pairing for sure, but even with both tracks delivering the same doctor-recommended amount of melodrama, this whole thing is surely a coincidence, right? Yet the more you dive into these strange Dreams, the more it's obvious that after trying to stylistically copy various groups on Ghost Stories, here they're outright ripping them off. At times, Coldplay goes about this in sly fashion, as the piano plinks of "Up&Up" certainly doesn't sound like Phosphorescent's achingly beautiful 2012 single "Song for Zula", but by knicking both the basslines and especially that haunting slide guitar that gave the original so much color, one has to wonder if Matthew Houck is going to see a royalty check from the whole affair or at the very least be comped a concert ticket.
Yet on "X Marks the Spot", with its deep, haunting synth tones and sparse percussion, the band make an aural photocopy of Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)" that is so blatant and lazy that one has to wonder if another "Blurred Lines"-style lawsuit is lurking around the corner. Lesser artists may try and get away with this kind of shameless "regifting" of melodies, but for a band of Coldplay's stature, it's nothing short of perplexing, as nothing is accomplished by such a painfully obvious "homage," especially on a song where Martin lets everyone knows that his heart goes "ba-boom-ba-boom-boom" like he's a Tex Avery cartoon trying to get down with a trap beat.
If it sounds odd, that's because it is, and although Dreams features several inoffensive "Coldplay-by-numbers" tracks ("Amazing Day", the very Mylo Xyloto-esque "Birds", the why-was-she-even-invited Tove Lo feature "Fun") and no overly egregious lyrical missteps to speak of (although the climax to "Army of One", where Martin claims his heart is a gun, comes damn close), lots of headlines have already been gobbled up regarding "Hymn for the Weekend", which features a densely layered vocal intro (and a less-stellar "la la la" outro) by Beyoncé herself, and her presence, along with an energetic chorus punctuated by some well-timed pop-in horn stabs, results in a burst of energy that the rest of Dreams is sorely missing.
So despite leading with a song called "Adventure of a Lifetime", Dreams gives us none of that: no real risk, no real adventure, and surprisingly little fun or catharsis (unless you count playing "Spot the Song Theft" as your idea of a good time). It's a bizarre move for a band of Coldplay's pedigree, who have proven before that they're not afraid to challenge themselves, but in the end, we are left with an album that, while a far cry from Viva La Vida and the group's first two efforts in terms of quality, still stays firmly in its safe zone, avoiding some of both Mylo Xyloto's and Ghost Stories' more glaringly pretentious moments but failing to offer us anything more interesting in return.
"You know I'd bleed myself dry" was the pledge Chris Martin made all those years ago, and on a purely creative level, he's sadly lived up to it.