It was the best of Martins; it was the worst of Martins. After reaching new levels of lyrical banality with Everyday Life, their worst-selling album to date that somehow picked up an Album of the Year nomination at the Grammys, UK pop-rock titans Coldplay saw fit to recruit pop’s most successful producer – and a couple very famous friends – to fast-track their way back to the public eye. After scoring the literal biggest song of all time with the synth-infused 80s jam “Blinding Lights,” Max Martin keeps up his 80s aesthetic and lends his penchant for inescapable earworms to a band that was already fully immersed in his brand of starry-eyed, mostly meaningless lyrical musings. While the pretentious concept on display here isn’t as infuriating as Chris Martin’s insistence on linking party anthems to the plight of Syrian refugees on his last album, the extensive world-building that only barely shows up is as derivative as some of the actual songs. On a couple tracks, a truly tired concept is introduced as we hear from the perspective of rebellious aliens embracing the power of music in a galaxy where it has been banned by a loosely described dictator. Seemingly in direct contrast to the theme, Chris Martin adds some more to his staggering pile of incredibly surface-level musings on what it means to be human. The double-dose of lyrical cliches and overblown stadium pop-rock is far too much to be saved by Max Martin’s best efforts. Let’s not even get into the emoji titles.
After an ambient intro titled “🪐,” in the first of many track titles that make me wonder if the charts have a way to accommodate symbol-based titles if they were to appear there, the first full-length track of the album is lead single “Higher Power,” which sees the band go full Imagine Dragons. It’s highly reminiscent of the unrelenting positivity and obnoxiously driving beats that coloured the Wreck-It Ralph single “Zero,” which might be Dan Reynolds and his band’s worst song in a whole catalogue of options to choose from. The big, shining synth chords and prominent, energetic bassline crafted by Max Martin might have come closer to pop euphoria with another singer at the helm, but Chris Martin’s hilariously stone-faced approach to some advanced corniness as a sends it flying into a bottomless pit. Embracing his role as the cheesy pop-rock dad might honestly work for him, but his dedication to singing backwards and talking about “dancing every hour” and “heavenly phones” just makes the message that everything is totally fine and there’s no reason to feel down – in a world where the biggest problem appears to be the untied shoes Chris Martin bravely overcomes in the opening verse – feel highly disingenuous. The track “Humankind” isn’t much better as far as lyrical revelations go, as the entire song builds up to a cringeworthy pun that evidently blew Chris’ mind – “we’re only human,” he repeatedly asserts, but “we’re capable of kindness, so they call us humankind.” The track is the only one where the alien theme is really gestured at, as the track’s narrator tells an on-the-nose tale about hearing distant music that takes him from “dyin’” to “flyin’.” Martin delivers all this with a stupefyingly blissful falsetto whoop over some speedy Ed Sheeran-style guitar strums.
All of the best moments on the project come when Coldplay invite some collaborators. The breakup ballad “Let Somebody Go” is Max Martin’s best work here. The muted pulse of the percussion is a nice touch as the tempo slows down, resembling a steadily beating heart as Chris Martin duets with Selena Gomez about the pain of parting ways. The best compliment you can give about Chris Martin’s delivery is that he commits so hard to what he does that he ends up having a childlike earnestness that can really tug at the heartstrings if you let your guard down and forget that he’s really not saying much at all. The track still goes off the rails as it frantically searches for a way to end itself, but Chris and Selena sound surprisingly good together as well, his gruffness juxtaposing with her computerized, breathy highs. “❤️,” with Jacob Collier in the arranger’s chair, is a completely a cappella track where the typically chaotic Collier shows uncharacteristic restraint, earning his jazzier moments instead of bombarding listeners with them. It’s nice to hear some of those warm bass notes rounding things out, as twin sister R&B duo We Are KING appear for a verse as well to add the kind of harmonies only twins can achieve into the mix. The track still feels a little stilted and lyrically trite, but it’s a moment of real beauty on an album that meekly strives to capture big feelings and can’t get there. Coldplay adapt themselves to the high-octane power-pop of BTS on “My Universe” as well, a rather nauseating melody elevated slightly by the sheer energy on display, daring you to join in with their call-and-response.
The track “People of the Pride” is the only moment here where Coldplay fires up the amplifiers and gets a little heavier, but the track is truly just “Uprising” by Muse to a somewhat shocking degree, further exemplifying just how out of touch the group can be at times. With tired images of robotic armies marching in circles and a brave message of “dictator bad,” the dated dubstep wubs are too much to bear and give the track the last nudge over the edge of complete unlistenability. When things start to get too lyrically specific, Chris Martin quickly shuts it down by just belting some yeah yeah yeahs. It’s all the more maddening when it transitions into “Biutyful,” the only track here with some lyrics bordering on heartfelt and genuine about a romantic connection, but half of the track sees a pitched-up, squeaky filter placed on Chris’ voice as he embodies a female alien character. It makes the whole thing seem like a joke, especially when he harmonizes with himself – it resembles an annoying kids’ show duet with a puppet. Chris seemingly forgets that a filter doesn’t iron out all the flaws and sounds out-of-tune often, the bright, sanitized instrumentation not doing the track any favours.
The project winds down with “♾️,” which is literally a mixture between a digitized, clanging remix of sorts of the soccer stadium “olé olé” chant and Chris Martin repeatedly singing a Latin religious chant for some unknown reason that really didn’t need to be nearly 4 minutes long, and the 10-minute closing epic “Coloratura.” It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, extended twinkling spacey synth instrumentals leading into what amounts to a drawn-out piano ballad where Chris offers some final baseline lyrical jabs at a perfect place where everyone can just love and get along.
What Coldplay truly needs to do at this point is become self-aware and commit just as hard to making fun of their outlandish and cheesy concepts as they do to selling them. A Coldplay that realizes that Chris Martin’s onstage flailing dances is actually hilarious and makes music that capitalizes on it is the only hope for the future. For now, it’s back-to-back disasters.
Favourite Tracks: ❤️, Let Somebody Go, My Universe
Least Favourite Track: Humankind