Music of the Spheres represents a mostly successful reconfiguration for Coldplay, but one that suggests the band’s character might be too pure to register in the unforgiving present moment.
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.
Published as part of Album Roundup — October 2021 | Part 4.