Monday, December 7, 2015

album review: 'a head full of dreams' by coldplay

I don't know how to start this review.

Because let me give you a glimpse into my usual process when it comes to making these. The first bit tends to be written before I've given the album an in-depth listen, often providing some degree of analysis into my thoughts and research about the band before I start delving into the record in detail. And normally it's framed around some topic that I feel will correlate with the album I'm looking to explore, which can lead to some interesting shifts in perspective mid-review, but hey, it happens.

And thus when I sat down to work on this review, my plan was to start with a lengthy digression on what it means for an act to 'sell out' in today's day and age, because I get the impression that not a lot of people understand what it means. No, it's not just a genre shift towards pop - you can sell out while still making the same genre of music - but it's more focused on a band submitting to the songwriting machine to crank out hits. And hell, it's not even always a bad thing: sometimes 'selling out' provides the creative impetus to spark otherwise known skills in the artists in question. But the reason why it tends to be regarded by so many - especially critics of the older generation - as a bad thing is that it reflects a loss of artistic integrity and individuality. And for a critic who will listen to hundreds of records a year, those individual elements that stand out are worth all the more, something that might not be the case for more casual listeners. 

But what happens when you get a band like Coldplay, a band who has always played for populism in broad strokes and has enjoyed consistent mainstream success because of it? Would it be even possible for them to 'sell out', especially considering their newest album A Head Full Of Dreams was intended as the upbeat resolution to the downcast, minimalist, very much underwhelming electronics of Ghost Stories? And sure, they were working with Beyonce and Tove Lo and Stargate, but they were working with pop stars as early as Mylo Xyloto and with mainstream producers like Avicii last year - this isn't anything new. And yet when I checked out their lead-off single 'Adventure Of A Lifetime', I got the impression that despite more personal themes, the change in sound might be enough to fall into that sell out lane. What did become clear is that further investigation would be required - so what did we get with A Head Full Of Dreams?


Folks, I'll be honest here: I've really struggled with this review, if only because this record left less than zero impression on me. And as any critic will tell you, middle-of-the-road blandness is the hardest thing to write about, because what can you say about a record that takes the broadly positive arc of Coldplay's anthemic hits and spreads it even thinner? I can't even say so much that it's outright awful as it is just formless - although I will say if it was designed to produce any sort of uplifting feeling in me, it falls completely flat on its face. 

And what's frustrating is that five years ago, if you had told me that Coldplay was making an album full of affirmation anthems that show them moving on from trials and soaring to the heavens, a part of me would be very much behind this. Sure, there wouldn't be much lyrical nuance, but the years where that was even expected are long gone - does Coldplay at least deliver here? Well, yes and no - easily the most emotional pathos is pulled from Chris Martin opting for more of a personal scope by finally putting his failed relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow to bed, but even on 'Fun' he ends the song with the line 'maybe we could again', which implies that there really isn't closure, even there. But really, this album is aiming bigger than that, grabbing up Eastern enlightenment philosophy and soaring iconography and symbolism that we've seen from Coldplay on previous records and trying to synthesize something of a mission statement - probably why they co-opted the cover design that Bring Me The Horizon did with Sempiternal a few years back. And yet for as much as they push for that transcendence, lyrically this record doesn't so much reach a conclusion or anthemic statement so much as it spreads itself to vaguely positive ideas and never really sticks a landing. Part of this is a lack of specific details - which can only be excused for so long - but part of it is that if you have a record that is all upward momentum with no picture into the darkness or drama, you can't highlight any contrast. Yes, I know it's supposed to be viewed as a companion piece to Ghost Stories, but where as the misery of that record felt perpetually undercut, here the soaring drama never really hits any sort of crescendo with real impact.

And the biggest reason why comes in the instrumentation and especially the production. Now I should just be able to say that this is an issue of swapping out the legendary Brian Eno a few albums ago for Stargate and walk away, but it runs deeper than that, because sonically this record rarely feels cohesive. There are points where this record tries to go for the rollicking retro-disco vibe, and kudos must be given to Jonny Buckland for at least trying to anchor it in decent melodies and Noel Gallagher handling the outro on the album closer 'Up&Up'. But take the title track: you have an halfway decent bass groove for the verse and hook, and then the second you drop into the bridge it fades into a leaden beat that kills the momentum, and considering the song feels like it's missing a verse, that's a problem. Hell, the percussion is a mess all over - Coldplay has never been a groove-driven band, and their inexperience in structuring them definitely shows in beats that are too stiff to flow and yet too blocky to match with the fluttering melodies, and it definitely hurts some otherwise decent tracks like 'Birds' and 'Amazing Day'. And production problems are endemic across this record - I like the fluttery, shimmering guitarwork across most of this album, but when you have weedy tones like the solo for 'Birds' and the only thing close to an edge coming through courtesy of acoustic strums or maybe the darker rollick on 'Fun', you've got a problem. And that's even getting to the vocal fragments trying to compete for the melody - which frankly feel tacked on when you already have good guitar tones - or the organ swell on 'Army Of One' that really doesn't work when your guitar and bass don't have the depth of tone, or the outright disaster that is the hidden track 'X Marks The Spot', where Coldplay tries for their washed out trap and bass-flavoured hit with an ugly synth tone and a completely disaffected vocal performance. It's a moment of total tonal whiplash that honestly highlights what many of the minor key progressions across this record only hint at: this record really isn't quite as bright or powerful as it wants to be, especially considering songs like 'Paradise' and 'Hurts Like Heaven' hit far stronger from Mylo Xyloto.

And a big part of this is mood. Many people default to Coldplay as the poor man's U2, but at least U2 understood when they made records like Pop to cloak the entire record in self-aware irony or at least try for a veneer of cool - something to which Chris Martin's boldfaced, wistful sincerity doesn't fit at all. While I've praised the hell out of his falsetto and voice in the past, his willowy tone doesn't have anything close to tightness and his stabs at adapting his populist euphoria to modern pop trends is jarring as hell. And it's definitely not helped by the vocal production and how this record does absolutely nothing with its guest stars - putting aside the fact that Beyonce sounds completely checked out on 'Hymn For The Weeknd', she's treated as a glorified backing vocalist and the production on the keys, horns, and guitar line is painfully thin, especially with the clap percussion. Considering this song is supposed to be venerating her as an angel, she's more of an implication than a real presence on this song, and that's a problem. Same case for Tove Lo - none of the raw vocal power that coloured her biggest hits or that debut album shows up, mostly because this record seems petrified of any real visceral crunch that could possibly alienate a listener. And then there's Gwyneth Paltrow on 'Everglow' - and given how many layers are piled onto her voice, you can barely tell that it's her. 

So, to circle back to my original case about selling out, my original hope is that Coldplay would at least be able to bring together an emotionally compelling recovery narrative to avoid that label - and yet so much of this record feels driven by committee and focus groups than a creative impulse, so terrified of offending anyone that I'm shocked they actually bothered to grab that little snippet of President Obama singing 'Amazing Grace' for one of the two pointless interludes. And the frustrating part is that there are moments where there is real emotional poignancy on 'Fun' and 'Everglow' and 'Up&Up' that might not be that unique from a compositional standpoint but at least felt real and personal. But the rest of this album spreads itself thin, with none of the crescendos or sense of emotive drama to land that broader impact and production that gives Coldplay none of the swell and power they once had. For me, this record is a 5/10 and the more I listen through this record, the more that feels generous. And if that's the final note they want to go out on... sad to say it, but of all of Coldplay's dreams, this might be one of the least inspiring. 

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