Despite — and arguably, because of — their ambition to make music that will be listened to by large numbers of people, British pop-rock quartet Coldplay is a long-standing, often irresistible target of derision. It’s not hard to speculate as to other reasons why: the weepy piano ballads they released early in their career are practically invitations to be bullied, and Coldplay’s more recent concessions towards gigantism (including collaborations with the Chainsmokers and Rihanna, and a Super Bowl performance) have stoked some cynicism about their motivations. The group also makes for a convenient and rare (give or take an Ed Sheeran) scapegoat for poptimists: a periodic ritual sacrifice that provides a veneer of discernment to that ethos, which characterizes much of modern music criticism. Whether or not the members of Coldplay themselves feel burdened by these no-win scenarios is anyone’s guess, though the arc of their output released after 2008 peak Viva la Vida suggests a certain amount of restlessness regarding their self-image, often performing dramatic, 180-degree pivots between restrained, personal works (Ghost Stories, Everyday Life) and garish pop confections (the risible A Head Full of Dreams). Music of the Spheres, the band’s ninth album, veers closer to the latter than its more tasteful predecessor, though its delivery reaches levels of sentiment matched by few artists in the current pop music landscape.
Along with most of the albums that have followed Coldplay’s initial piano-rock trilogy, Spheres was co-written in full with a single producer: the indefatigable hit-maker Max Martin. Where previous full-length collaborations with Brian Eno (a star in his own musical constellation, if not the last 25 years of pop music) embellished Coldplay’s instrumental sophistication — adding a Laraaji-esque plucked passage here, rising ambient swells there — Martin provides Coldplay with concision and scale, helping to craft the band’s densest music possibly ever. Lead single “Higher Power” is apersuasive example of their alchemy: viscous bass and sub-bass anchor a righteous dance cut that doesn’t swing so much as land blows on a punching bag, while lyrical celebration hangs ambiguously between romantic and ecclesiastical. Similarly far-reaching aims are realized on “People of the Pride,” a thick and dorky rocker that charms despite resembling the self-importance of late period U2, as well as on “Humankind,” an endearing (if improbable) ode to the ties that bind our species. Conceptually, loosely organized around an imagined solar system and the different alien musicians which might inhabit it, Spheres’ conceit and personnel choices result in a musical language so broad as to avoid any possible misunderstanding: It is loud enough in tenor and messaging that it almost seems intended to be heard by inhabitants of different planets simultaneously.
The means through which this hypothetical universality is achieved on Spheres does occasionally grate. In particular, Spheres’ features make unconvincing arguments for Coldplay’s ability to fold other musicians into their world. On “Let Somebody Go (feat. Selena Gomez),” all involved fail to elevate the song’s staid adult contemporary arrangement and insipid pop psychology (think “conscious uncoupling” meets astrology). The pleasant “<3 (feat. We are KING & Jacob Collier)” is similarly left in the lurch, a group choral hymn that might have benefited from the explosive climaxes that Coldplay all too eagerly doles out elsewhere on the album. More successful is emphatic nu-disco of “My Universe (feat. BTS),” its giddy sugar rush (and the borrowed commercial power of its featured artist) netting Coldplay their first Billboard #1 hit since “Viva La Vida.” Given that this eventual victory was likely the source of inspiration for their collaboration, its effective gaming of pop chart metrics impresses less than the handful of songs on Spheres where Coldplay genuinely approximates the intergalactic (the album’s trio of interludes, “∞” and especially the magisterial prog-rock closer “Coloratura”). Rather than Spheres’ (mostly successful) efforts to re-mold Coldplay in accordance with the frictionless streaming era — and its admittedly out-of-step emotionality, seemingly conceived for a post-COVID, post-Trump “together again” moment that never arrived — the group’s signature wide-eyed talents shine brightest in these more unbound moments, perhaps signaling that their musical aspirations are ultimately too pure for the unforgiving earthbound realities in which they exist.
Remarkably dynamic and continually inventive, Parquet Courts has continued to thrive where most of their genre contemporaries have flailed and faded. While cultural interests shift further and further away from the sounds and stylings of the drum/guitar/bass rock quartet, this band (still consisting of Andrew Savage, Austin Brown, Sean Yeaton and Max Savage — the day one lineup) has leaned in, working and refining the spry, reduxed proto-punk of breakthrough album Light Up Gold to great success over the course of their now decade-plus career.
Most recently, Parquet Courts veered somewhere close to explicit pop appeal with the Danger Mouse-produced Wide Awake, an experiment of sorts born from a desire to challenge the band’s more serrated musical tendencies. The results were indeed crisper and bigger, Savage’s twangy, shouted delivery blown up to anthemic proportions previously touched on by the vocalist and his cohorts (who often pick up additional vocal responsibilities), but never so heartily committed to. But as seems to be the Parquet Courts way, this approach (and Danger Mouse) has been reconsidered for their new project Sympathy for Life, which turns away from compact, broad production in favor of sparer, electronic compositions.
Though, such a description of the music on Sympathy for Life could oversell it as a radical departure for Parquet Courts whereas, similar to Wide Awake or previous switch-up record Content Nausea, the songs here are still well within proximity of the quintessential works, just accentuating particular elements. In fact, opening tracks “Walking at a Downtown Pace” and “Black Widow Spider” feel like natural progressions of the band’s general proclivities, positioning Savage front and center for a pair of sped-up ballads that marry the band’s usual vigorous tempo with a more sing-songy vocal approach to considerable effect. A strong start unfortunately belies a more confused progression, following these openers with “Marathon of Anger” and “Just Shadows”; the latter song scanning as a downbeat leftover from some session years prior, while the former suggests an album that never quite arrives.
As discussed in much of the pre-release promotion, Sympathy for Life embraces electronic production and aims to harness the spirit of the club and rave culture the band has recently grown keen on. Not such an unreasonable pivot for Parquet Courts certainly, but the results are strangely muted, “Marathon of Anger” standing out as the most energetic take on the concept, putting Savage’s rapid-fire spoken word depiction of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests over frenetic, clashing beats. Other interpretations like “Application/Apparatus” feel less engaged, apparently culled from extensive improv sessions overseen by Rodaidh McDonald and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish; the album’s core is comprised of moody, drifting compositions built atop precise rhythmic beeps that don’t ever quite add up to the club-ready beats Parquet Courts claimed to be angling for. An interesting change of pace for the band, but one that only feels partially committed to, Sympathy for Life represents a new tangent that could stand to be attended to more.
The music of noise rap antagonist JPEGMAFIA has often straddled the line between observer and participant: wry in its reportage of our shared pop cultural and political lexicons, while forceful enough that listening to his music can be tantamount to being physically shaken. His 2018 album Veteran was many listeners’ proper introduction to these agitations, and became something of a sleeper hit in Internet music circles, its allusions to #trending topics striking a chord at a moment during which art that pointedly commented on uncertain times possessed a high level of purchase. The album was indeed “of the moment,” though the music JPEG has released since has arguably outstripped the somewhat rigid parameters that Veteran’s then-present tense set for itself. 2019 follow-up All My Heroes are Cornballs — with its post-Blonde blend of rapping and singing, and increasingly agile, fluid production from JPEG himself — expanded his music’s emotional range beyond these shock tactics, and his two subsequent EPs expanded that range further still, presenting a bifurcation of his more accessible (EP!) and avant-garde (EP2) selves. On his latest album, LP!, JPEG is a man unified, if mainly in near-omnipresent and omnidirectional fury. Yet the continued creativity with which JPEG contorts himself and the structure of his songs prevents LP! from being a rote spectacle of aggrievement, its 20-song tracklist filled to the brim with eccentricity and self-assurance.
Somewhat notably, LP! exists in two different versions: an abbreviated “online” version released on Spotify, and a longer “offline” version released via the “pay what you want” model on Bandcamp. The “offline” LP! is the more complete effort per JPEG, who released a statement on Bandcamp in tandem with its release describing his negative experience in the music industry and desire to be “free as hell” after his label contract expires (which has occurred with the release of LP!). The note aptly sets the tone for the album proper, which — after an initial feint on glistening, skittering opener “TRUST!” — tears into its laundry list of enemies with the energy of a man possessed, burning bridges with seemingly gleeful abandon. “END CREDITS!” is one such fantasy of violence, opening with a sampled threat from AEW wrestler Arn Anderson before leading into glorious noise-rock freefall, JPEG detailing a growing body count with audible excitement. After an initial mechanized wind-up, “REBOUND!” becomes similarly volatile, its initially untargeted dismissals of presumed peers followed by laser-precise shots aimed at fellow underground favorite Armand Hammer in JPEG’s second verse (“THE GHOST OF RANKING DREAD!” further fans the flames, though both parties have reportedly squashed their beef since the release of LP!). This least-constrained version of JPEG on LP! is a captivatingly loose cannon, turning his earlier Twitter fingers into trigger fingers where specific opponents have drawn his ire, and adept as ever in his more broadly applicable intimidations on songs like “BMT!” and “DIRTY!”
Though less flashy than his verbal theatrics, JPEG’s work behind the boards on LP! is equally liberated. Condensing the form-bending qualities of Cornballs into briefer bursts, the album’s post-Internet palette of brittle industry and oddball genre exercises (produced almost in full by JPEG) makes a persuasive case for the variety of its creator’s listening habits. On muted album closer “UNTITLED!,” forlorn keys and the white noise desolation that surrounds them resembles Tim Hecker if remixed by Nosaj Thing; earlier, the surprising glitch-hop of “NEMO!” recalls Autechre at their most impish. JPEG’s more organic productions on LP! are also highlights in a literal sense, leavening the album’s hostile tone with sampled vocals whose uplift gestures toward religion and salvation (“HAZARD DUTY PAY!,” “THOTS PRAYER!”). In these ways and more, LP! can sometimes resemble Kanye West’s recent Donda, which struck a comparable balance between defiance and revery, and whose self-justifications were also communicated by way of embodying an ideal. These shared qualities are especially apparent on LP! centerpiece “TIRED, NERVOUS & BROKE!,” which opens with livewire shit-talking from JPEG over rumbling drums, and later fades into an in-studio conversation with none other than R&B singer Kimbra. The pair chat idly before co-performing an unadorned piano ballad that lays out some of JPEG’s future aspirations (“I don’t want to be sold out baby” and “I don’t want to be stressed out for profit,” among them). Though quieter in tone than JPEG’s Bandcamp manifesto, the message is functionally the same: the need for complete control over his creative vision, more fully realized than ever on LP!
Lately, Maxo Kream has been feeling the Weight Of The World on his shoulders. The Houston rapper’s voice sounds wearied and pained on the opener to his third studio album, opening with the same mantra that prefaced his excellent second (“Carried by 6 before I’m judged by 12”) before listing off his burdening troubles over the track’s somber beat: the death of his brother, his father’s recidivism, his cousin’s suicide, a friend’s million-dollar bond, and now his grandmother’s recent hospitalization due to COVID. For anyone else, these familial afflictions and personal anxieties would be exorbitant; for Maxo, they serve as his biggest inspiration, a reminder of why he continues doing what he does and at the level of proficiency he maintains. The next song, the playful “11:59” — which samples The Ruffin Brothers’ “Your Love Was Worth Waiting For,” last heard here — returns to his stylistic and lyrical comfort zone, helping recalibrate the record’s overall mood to be a little more lighthearted. This recurring tonal dichotomy between vulnerable reverent and bombastic arrogance fuels “THEY SAY,” an argumentative diptych that explores the tensions of his self-perception: Maxo defends himself from accusations he believes his naysayers would level at him, including that he “put Playboi Carti on and then that n***a surpassed him.” (To be fair, it does sound like a fairly accurate statement.)
The only time where Maxo’s aggrandizement overstates itself here is on “BIG PERSONA,” where the sentiment is taken to dizzying heights that are indeed energetic, yet fails to leave much of an impact. Produced by Tyler, the Creator (who also shouts out the chorus), it features plenty of loud, brassy instrumentation (this might as well be titled “LEMONHEAD, PT. 2”) and a repetitive high-pitched arpeggio progression at the start; it’s a complete sonic outlier whose inclusion feels like a miscalculated attempt to please critical naysayers. Besides, the album’s best cuts are ones where Maxo keeps things lowkey, the tunes that don’t feel burdened by artificial collaborations. His biggest flaw has always been getting subpar verses from big-name guests, especially ones he shares a regional connection with: Travis Scott and Megan Thee Stallion are both unenergetic on Brandon Banks, while Don Toliver phones it in this time around. Although there’s also his delusions of grandeur, like J. Cole whenever he tries to keep it “humble” or “real.” He’s often optimistic, even outright hopeful on these tracks — like on “GREENER KNOTS,” where he envisions a prosperous future for his son — one divorced from the systemic violence he himself was raised around — and expresses himself thusly. They’re simple, even unflashy compositions to most trained ears; but they’re genuinely heartfelt in their presentation and delivery, a mature characteristic that’s exceedingly rare within the commercial echelon Maxo currently inhabits. But this shouldn’t be surprising, as Maxo Kream’s an exceedingly rare type of MC: one who’s continued to develop and improve his abilities from project to project, one who hasn’t grown complacent with his already high-performing abilities. In that sense, the Weight Of The World could be interpreted as the burden of high expectation, a load Maxo proudly carries, once again, with great ease.
The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die
One of the rare, great Connecticut bands (though they apparently identify as Philadelphia-based these days) The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die quickly gained a devoted national following in and around 2013, coinciding with the release of their debut album Whenever, If Ever. This quickly placed them at the forefront of the emo revival thing music blogs were attempting to codify in this moment, yet the band soon revealed themselves to have their sights set on something far grander than reductive trendiness with massive follow-up LP Harmlessness, an operatic work that loomed above most releases in 2015. The World is a Beautiful Place hasn’t always been the easiest group to pin down, their ranks actively growing and shrinking erratically over the years (at one point they boasted 8 members; currently 5) with bassist Josh Cyr the only remaining founder. Despite this lineup fluidity, there has been a consistent core holding it down since Whenever, If Ever, anchoring the band’s vision and philosophy as articulated in dueling vocalists David Bello and Katie Dvorak’s melodically whiny register. And now, nine years on, those two, Cyr, Steven Buttery, and Chris Teti arrive with their fourth album, Illusory Walls (named in reference to FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, maybe an inevitable touchpoint), yet another big, ambitious work that finds The World is a Beautiful Place attempting to unify their project thus far while reckoning with political and interpersonal turmoil.
Bridging the divide between the mythic, existential Harmlessness and its more compact, literally-minded follow up Always Foreign, Illusory Walls returns the band to that former album’s more expansive canvas and earnest philosophical ruminations, this time grounded by the post-Trump sociopolitical lens they embraced on the latter album. It’s a convincing summation of the band’s progression thus far, tackled with their usual unflinching earnestness and now familiar instrumentation flourishes — cinematic strings, sweeping guitar breakdowns, rousing vocal harmonies, occasional veers into synth pop, etc. The World is a Beautiful Place’s tricks are well cataloged at this point, but still expertly employed, openers “Afraid to Die” and “Queen Sophie for President” exemplifying the band’s dynamicism, shifting from charmingly self-serious hardcore to whimsical pop, and back. Obviously confident in their process at this point, the worst the songs on Illusory Walls could be accused of is roteness within the context of the band’s discography, not so much a progression of the band’s ideas, but a reflection on them. They also have a harder time articulating their perception of the current political climate here than they did on Always Foreign, which was just direct enough in its condemnation of American life during Trump’s first year in office. There’s even more of this on Illusory Walls, and while the tendencies of the genre ask one to allow for a level of unvarnished emotional appeal they might not otherwise, tracks like “Blank // Worker” (their Springsteen song?) unfortunately tend to lose track of the poetic in pursuit of harsh, real-world truth.
But where the political realm confounds, self-mythology proves inspiring for The World is a Beautiful Place, who reorient nicely by the album’s end with tremendous closers: the 15-minute “Infinite Josh” and 19-minute “Fewer Afraid,” both riffing on the band’s history and the evolution of their ideology in relation to this last chaotic decade. “Fewer Afraid” brings back unofficial member and spoken-word artist Christopher Zizzamia to deliver a poem that could reasonably act as thesis for the album in total and mission statement for the band, reflecting on grief as a uniting human characteristic and motivating agent to work toward something better. Closing out the song with an interpolation of Whenever, If Ever track “Getting Sodas,” Bello and Dvorak shout: “The world is a beautiful place, but we have to make it that way / Whenever you find home, we’ll make it more than just a shelter / If everyone belongs there, it will hold us all together / If you’re afraid to die, then so am I.” It’s a vigorous and endearing confirmation of their commitment to carrying on The World is a Beautiful Place project into this new decade — one that will hopefully provide this band with some new inspiration.
Spanning a total of nearly 80 minutes, several movements, and countless genre shifts, Angel Marcloid project Fire-Toolz returns with the dense, multi-layered Eternal Home, an absolute monolith of sound and a shining example of progressive creativity. Eternal Home mixes prog guitars and keyboard with industrial beats and harsh screamo vocals that are bound together by jazz elements and hyper-pop energy; it’s a unique, off-the-wall experience, a record to listen to thoughtfully and unwrap as it goes along.
But with Fire-Toolz, the devil’s in the details. If you were to isolate the guitar parts of Eternal Home, you would immediately (and correctly) identify Angel Marcloid as an impassioned fan of Rush, here delivering respectful imitation of the influential progressive guitar work found on the prog-rock band’s records. This proves to be the perfect foundation upon which to paint with the sounds of nearly every genre imaginable, and Marcloid spans decades and eras to that end, successfully entwining influences that seem otherwise unimaginable together. Simply put, there’s a whole lot of sound happening at any given point on Eternal Home. But while many artists would be left to languish within a chaotic mess, one of Fire-Toolz greatest strengths is cohesion, and here crafts a solid narrative throughline that engages the listener even as it shifts and slides into the next segment. Jazz compositions wash like waves, followed immediately by an electronic trance; while obviously profoundly different in surface style, Marcloid’s brilliance comes in reveling in their similarities rather than dissonance, a remarkable challenge for even the most talented producers. Indeed, there’s a particular genre element for just about everyone to find on this record, though Fire-Toolz smartly avoids anchoring the work in any one sound, forcing listeners to follow the album’s eclectic sonic rhythm. Producing a great work within a single genre is challenging enough, and it’s that much more difficult to deliver greatness across multiple genres on a single record, but Eternal Home manages to thrill across a whole litany of genres while sounding almost effortless in the process. This admittedly doesn’t result in the easiest or most comfortable listening experience, but that’s really only a barrier for those unwilling to be challenged by an artist’s reach.
Let’s just state the obvious: music, as an artform that evolves (as all must), expands to fill the shape of our humanity, universal in the breadth of feelings and provocations it can inspire through sound and language. Eternal Home attempts to establish and speak to that very universality in less than 90 minutes, building with a vast sweeping soundscape that, while at times inaccessible, is a brilliant and singular take on our relationship to music itself. It’s a challenging work, to be sure, but sublime in execution. The positive spin, then, is that Marcloid creates an auditory tapestry here unlike anything she’s previously constructed; the more cynical take is that she makes it tough to imagine her ever topping this effort.