A Head Full of Dreams

Coldplay - A Head Full of Dreams

A year and a half ago, Coldplay released their best record. Let me stop you before you start trying to figure out how that warped timeline can get you back to 2008’s Viva la Vida or 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head. Sure, those records had big world-beating singles and a lot of ambition, but as an album, nothing in this band’s catalog touches Ghost Stories. A stark, spectral disc about a Chris Martin’s broken heart, Ghost Stories was great precisely because it played so against type for Coldplay. These guys were supposed to be stadium rockers! Where were the hooks? Where was the celebration? Where was the consummate hugeness that they’d been leveling up gradually for a decade? For most of their history, Coldplay have been a band about you and we, not a band about me. But on Ghost Stories, the key line was “Tell me you love me, if you don’t then lie.” It wasn’t a record that was meant for communal gatherings in stadiums or arenas; hell, it didn’t even sound like a record that was supposed to escape Chris Martin’s heartbroken, insomniac brain, so personal and intimate was the music within.

A Head Full of Dreams, Coldplay’s seventh full-length album (and possibly their last) comes quick on the tails ofGhost Stories, but it is not a sequel or a continuation. Rather, A Head Full of Dreams is a complete pivot, an album that leaves the heartbroken intimacy of its predecessor in the dust in favor of big-hearted optimism and unashamed universality. If Ghost Stories was a record for no one other than Chris Martin, A Head Full of Dreamsis a record about everyone. No more me and I; this record gets right back to the we and you.

Coldplay making a return-to-form record at this moment in time isn’t surprising and it’s not, on the surface, a bad thing. Ghost Stories was bound to be an anomaly in this band’s discography. Springsteen didn’t make Tunnel of Love twice; Bob Dylan didn’t make Blood on the Tracks twice. Nobody wants to make their heartbreak record twice. In that sense, the best thing that can be said for A Head Full of Dreams is that Martin sounds like he’s happy again. There are still shades of the melancholy that defined Ghost Stories: the gorgeous “Everglow”—the album’s best song, no contest—is a piano ballad with electronic drums, chopped up backing vocals, and a lot of the same ambient textures that flittered through this album’s predecessor. “Everglow” also has a Gwyneth Paltrow guest spot, making it pretty obvious that the song is one last ode to Martin’s marriage. “So how come things move on? Home come cars don’t slow?/When it feels like the end of my world/Why I should but I can’t let you go,” Martin sings in the first verse. It’s a typical Coldplay cliché, but it feels charged with the same tension that Ghost Stories did, that same small-scale, humanized tension that made that album better than just about anyone gave it credit for.

If “Everglow” is the look back, the rest of A Head Full of Dreams feels like an attempt to run way too fast into “moved on” mode. The overall feel of the record is “Now that we’re done being bummed out, let’s get back to celebrating how beautiful the world is.” The resulting disc tries to be as celebratory and colorful as Mylo Xyloto, the band’s 2011 album and still their most audacious, maximalist pop effort. A lot of people hated that album, but to me, it was the one where Coldplay really stopped trying to imitate their idols and made an album that was completely them. Where Viva La Vida to this day scans as the band’s attempt to write their own Joshua TreeMylo was Coldplay playing the mad pop scientist role and coming up with near-cartoonish shit that no one else would even think of, let alone pull off. A Head Full of Dreams tries to out-MyloMylo, calling in favors from big names in the pop and rock industry and tossing new influences and experiments into the mix haphazardly. But where all of the weird gambles on Mylo Xyloto turned it into an explosive neon-drenched arena rock album,A Head Full of Dreams feels like the watercolor or low-cal alternative. From the interludes to the guest spots to the long sustained build-up at the end of the record, nothing works as well.

That’s not to say A Head Full of Dreams is all bad. The aforementioned “Everglow” is a solid addition to Coldplay’s famed stable of heart-on-the-sleeve ballads, and the propulsive “Birds” makes good use of this album’s electronic influences with a foot-tapping beat that never loses its energy. Lead-off single “Adventure of a Lifetime,” while a little weak in the hook department, is intriguing at least for its disco feel and a slick Edge-like riff from guitarist Jonny Buckland. The title track lacks the burst-out-of-the-gates momentum of proper Mylo opener “Hurts Like Heaven,” but plays like a solid nod to post-millennial U2. “Army of One,” meanwhile, is another spot where the album’s attempt at a modern dance-pop sound really pays off, pairing heavy bass with a chopped up vocal sample. The lyrics are dull (“There is no fire that I wouldn’t walk through/My army of one is gonna fight for you”), but musically, the song is entrancing.

Elsewhere, though, the band’s attempt at making what amounts to a mainstream pop album results in some truly ghastly material. “Fun,” an electo-pop duet with Tove Lo, is perhaps the dullest and most melodically challenged ballad that Coldplay have ever recorded—not helped by the fact that the eye-roll worthy couplet “Don’t say that we’re done/Didn’t we have fun?” is the key line. Worse still is “Hymn for the Weekend,” a dreadful duet with Beyonce that is so incredibly out of place on this album that it singlehandedly destroys any chance at cohesion or flow. Supposedly, this song is Coldplay trying to write a club-ready anthem. Unfortunately, that goal translates here to a song where Martin and Beyonce both get to sing “I’m feeling drunk and high” and rhyme it with “Let me shoot across the sky.” As a standalone single or part of a leftovers EP, this gimmicky experiment of a song might not have been such a disaster. But “Hymn” sounds like it came from a different album—or, frankly, a different band—than the songs that surround it (“Birds” and “Everglow”), and on an LP that is supposed to be Coldplay’s swansong, that bizarre tonal inconsistency is almost laughable.

A Head Full of Dreams also reverts to Coldplay’s odd habit of tossing interludes into the tracklist. The band used interludes to varying levels of success on both Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto, but at least those tracks usually served logical as connective bridges between songs. Here, the interludes often feel as much like publicity stunts as the aforementioned Beyonce feature. “Kaleidoscope” is particularly egregious, starting with a reading of what is supposedly an old Persian poem and continuing into a sample of Obama singing “Amazing Grace.” In another context, an interlude like this one might be powerful and profound. But “Kaleidoscope” makes no sense in context, dropped as it is between “Fun” and “Army of One.” “X Marks the Spot,” meanwhile, is an ill-advised hip-hop-influenced jam that, for some reason, gets tacked on as a hidden track between “Army of One” and the middle-of-the-road “Amazing Day.” And “Colour Spectrum” provides a one-minute build-up to album closer “Up&Up”—a song that, at nearly seven minutes in length, didn’t need any more ornamentation.

A band with six previous albums under their belt, a parade of hit songs, and enough clout to land the Super Bowl 50 gig shouldn’t be making these kinds of inept sequencing mistakes. The early Coldplay albums are uneven and often feel more like collections of singles than true albums—particularly X&Y, which found the band at the peak of their powers and audibly unsure of what to do with them. But since Viva, Coldplay have learned to make sonically cohesive albums that flow well and convey emotional experiences that are greater than the sum of their parts. Ghost Stories was particularly impressive in that regard, trimming all the fat and indulgence for a lean nine-song album that never felt like anything other than an album. 

”Up&Up” does a decent job of pretending like A Head Full of Dreams is cohesive, closing the album with a celebratory, gospel-laced coda that features both Merry Clayton (most famous for those scathing backup vocals on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) and Noel Gallagher (who essentially just reprises the climactic guitar solo from “Champagne Supernova”). Ultimately, though, A Head Full of Dreams is too directionless and scattershot to deserve the big all-hands-on-deck communalism of its closer. Between the range of different styles, the throw-this-wherever-the-fuck-you-want interludes, and the stunt-casting of the guest spots, A Head Full of Dreams is the least cohesive and—pardon, but I have to say it—worst album Coldplay have ever made. If this was going to be their swansong—or, as Martin once described it, their Deathly Hallows—the band at least deserved the chance to put the focus on themselves. At every turn, though, A Head Full of Dreams feels like it’s focused on someone else—whether that “someone else” is Beyonce, Noel Gallagher, or production team Stargate, who often seem to be trying to make Coldplay sound like a different band. There are a few good songs, but A Head Full of Dreams is disappointing because it’s the first Coldplay album in awhile that is distinctly less than the sum of its parts.

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