Too many smug music connoisseurs see Coldplay as an inoffensive, inconsequential mainstream pop act. The critical generosity extended to many modern pop musicians – a turn away from the anti-sellout culture in the 1990s and 2000s – isn’t extended to Coldplay, who rose to prominence at the height of that skepticism. To these people, I usually have one retort: “You don’t like the band that wrote ‘Clocks’?”
You know the group: “Clocks”, “Yellow”, “The Scientist”, “Fix You”, “Viva La Vida”: a cadre of early Coldplay tunes that are essentially standards at this point. Direct, to-the-point, beautifully produced pop songs that can get a whole arena singing. The comments on their YouTube videos are about the beauty of the world around us. This is their lane.
But the truth is Coldplay have not been in that lane for a long time, and their latest release, Music of the Spheres, takes them even further away as they try to replicate those old feelings. A concept album about a fictional, distant solar system, the album is ostensibly trying to make a statement about the unity of humanity. Aesthetically, it’s a deeper foray into glossy pop for the sake of showing our interconnectedness, kind of like 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams meets outer space.
The significant flaw of Music of the Spheres is that it spends a lot of effort telling us that humans have this capacity for love and goodness, sometimes in overly saccharine terms, without getting us to feel it. “Humankind”, a frankly heartless song whose instrumentation does not come close to inspiring, closes with the lyrics, “We’re only human / But we’re capable of kindness / So they call us humankind.” Excellent material for a poster for a third-grade classroom, but not exactly meaningful for anyone else.
This unmotivated feeling dominates the record, as we’re served up tracks like “My Universe”, which is lent a modicum of excitement via a BTS feature, “Higher Power”, and “Biutyful”. These tracks shoot for energetic pop but just become corny. Perhaps the greatest offender is “Infinity Sign”, which offers cold synthpop on top of a faint recording of the “Olé Olé Olé” chant for reasons that are perhaps unknowable.
It seems that Coldplay missed a fundamental part of what makes them who they are: they write music that people want to come together over. This comparison to their earlier work isn’t about quality – I’m not saying there are no songs on Music of the Spheres that stack up to “The Scientist” (although there aren’t). It’s more about stance: like A Head Full of Dreams, Coldplay is in telling mode instead of showing mode – telling us relentlessly that we are united, without instilling any of the feelings and heart that make us united. In 2021 especially, I want to feel it, not just be told.
That isn’t to say that this feeling is entirely absent. “Let Somebody Go” is a passable reading of this sort of material. It’s a meditation on the dissolution of a relationship and the love involved in walking away – certainly not a new idea, but it does pull the heartstrings closer to the position we’re used to hearing from Coldplay. When I listen to it, I feel a connection to the band – and other listeners – much stronger than I do on “Human Kind” or “Human Heart”.
A surprise bonus point for this record is its aesthetic diversity; sometimes, listening to a lot of Coldplay gets repetitive, as much as I enjoy the group. But Music of the Spheres balances different sounds well, especially in the middle of the record. While the songs are not always exceptionally compelling, the movement from the ballad of “Let Somebody Go”, to the minimalist and densely layered “(Human Heart)” to the darker, thrashing “People of the Pride” keeps Music of the Spheres at least dynamic.
The closing track, “Coloratura”, comes in at over ten minutes, easily the longest song Coldplay have ever recorded. Something of a prog-pop opus, the track takes plenty of structural risks that allow it to achieve a surprising level of intimacy. It’s still a little lyrically over-the-top, but the variations in tone, as well as the climactic use of the band’s retro instrumentation, leave us with at least one flicker of Coldplay’s brilliance.