Sunday, November 24, 2019

album review: 'everyday life' by coldplay

It feels like it's been longer than it's actually been since I talked about Coldplay.

Now for you all that has more to do with Warner Music Group throwing a copyright block on my review of the last album to take it down worldwide only days after it was posted - because spineless violations of journalistic fair use are fun for the family - but the larger truth is that I just haven't had much incentive to seek or discuss Coldplay in the 2010s. Sure, they had a single pop up on my year-end list of the best hits of 2016 - that being 'Hymn For The Weekend' with Beyonce - but to be perfectly candid, it was more of a factor of the Hot 100 in 2016 being an absolute garbage fire rather than the song being a credible standout.

And yet this isn't coming from someone who as a critic dislikes this band, even if they've given me plenty of credible reasons - for the most part I like Coldplay, and they're incredible live. But if I were to compare the cyclical melodic progressions, strident crescendos, and willowy wistfulness of their best material across the 2000s, the 2010s have seen them flailing with pop and electronic pivots that don't fully play to those strengths, rarely bad but frequently underweight and bland. Granted, it didn't help the production quality took a nose dive when they ditched Brian Eno, but I'd argue the bigger problem was a collapse in dynamic range - at their best, Coldplay could take their broad abstractions to soar, feel like so much more than was present explicitly in the text, but with every layer of stiff percussion and underweight electronics, I just got no emotional impact. 

And thus I was worried about Everyday Life, because at this point, Coldplay's pop pivot wasn't going to stop, especially given Max Martin cowriting with them. And yet while this album was being advertised as a double album, in reality each disc was pretty short so this project still clocked under an hour - thank god. But hey, rock bottom expectations, there's nowhere to go but up, right, so how is Everyday Life?

So I'm going to be very blunt right out of the gate: even for my low expectations, I can argue convincingly this is Coldplay's worst album to date, and while I said something similar for A Head Full Of Dreams, this time it's for very different - and more contentious - reasons. And yet I completely understand why there's a whole lot of critics who are calling this Coldplay's 'best and most important album in years', mostly because there's a formula that'll appeal to a certain brand of middlebrow critic that even Coldplay can pull off, and yet it doesn't precisely nothing for me. And yes, I know it makes me look like the bad guy or 'hater' to come down on a project that's otherwise 'pleasant' or 'inoffensive', but when I can say that nothing here even rises to the best of Coldplay this decade, let alone the last, there's a serious goddamn problem afoot.

So let's start with the sound and production, and I'll give the first big pass to Coldplay: I'm not expecting a rock album. Even though that was the band's sound at its most propulsive and dynamic and interesting, I'd be able to tolerate the band going pop. And hell, most of the badly placed electronics and synthetic vocal filters are gone, that has to be a positive step, right? Well, that's the thing: you can't place this album within mainstream pop: in fact, I'd argue the most apt sonic comparison is the late 80s-early 90s easy listening scene, with the faint hints of world music in the percussion that are mostly embarrassing and some of the heavy-handed sample choices that comprise the weird genre-hopping all over this thing. It's being praised as 'diverse' for cribbing elements of overly pristine Christian music and a slightly better developed rhythm section, as well as all the quasi-choppy acoustic guitars from the most recent lifeless version of Maroon 5, but none of it has texture or punch or gravitas or any sort of potent crescendo - you know, what used to be Coldplay's greatest compositional asset! For God's sakes, Vampire Weekend is less whitebread than this - on their most recent album! Instead most of the electric guitars are shoved midway to the back to spark unconvincingly or cycle through an underwhelming passage, and the pianos are pushed behind a film that muffles any sparkle or flair - and look, Coldplay has always been kind of saccharine and innocent and middlebrow, but songs like 'Daddy' are damn near childlike, featuring an AJR-esque regressive Peter Pan complex that's just distracting! And normally you could argue that Chris Martin's voice would cut through, add something - but across the vast majority of this album he sounds utterly checked out, occasionally overpowered by his backing vocalists, and even when he sounds like he cares like on 'Church' or parts of the title track, there's so little to work with! That's the other alarming thing: for a wait of four years between albums, the fact that so many of these songs sound unfinished or fragmented or lacking a proper hook or mix depth is genuinely alarming - you could at least tell that Myxo Xyloto or A Head Full Of Dreams were trying or had a little more ambition, but Everyday Life barely breaks out of park, let alone get into a higher gear. And I'm thoroughly sick of passing off and excusing unfinished pieces of songs jumbled together as 'experimental' - The 1975 did something just as milquetoast last year, Kanye already tried it with his "gospel" mistake this year, and I'm not buying it - this is not post-structural or post-modern, it's undercooked and lazy!

And here's what drives me crazy: in today's age where 'vibe' and 'low-key' are treasured among playlists and the unfinished mix gets mainstream airplay, I'm under no illusions that this'll do well, and even why some critics will praise it; it's the same damn reason why I'm consistently unimpressed by so many of the baroque pop set are trying to emulate the mid-60s and aren't sticking the landing, it's branding itself as 'different' and 'experimental' while just dredging up a sound that was limp and lousy thirty years ago, now with less structure! And since people don't remember the history of sounds like this - because most of its charting success was roundly forgotten and for good reason - people are simply praising as it as new, at least for Coldplay, as if it doesn't reflect a total regression across the board. And that's not saying that there aren't moments where Coldplay's approach comes close to working either: both 'Arabesque' and 'Orphans' have a little low-end groove, with the former probably the best song here thanks to its thicker acoustic riff and horns section and something of an abortive crescendo, and I can even say that songs like 'Everyday Life' has some elegant shimmer and 'Old Friends' is a passable acoustic ballad. But on the flipside, especially with the higher backing vocals clumsily blended into a retro pickup, 'Cry Cry Cry' sounds like it belongs in an overdone holiday commercial because the advertising agency couldn't get the rights to any Christmas songs! 

And here's the thing: if Coldplay was using this slapdash, scattered approach to surround a poignant or powerful theme, that'd be one thing... but we now have to talk about lyrics, which have consistently been Coldplay's giant weak point when the broad swings for the fences don't work. And I'm bringing back my three P's for good political art - power, precision, populism - because between the marketing and the overarching themes and choice of samples on this project, Coldplay is clearly trying to make this a 'message' album; you'd think since Mylo Xyloto they'd have learned Chris Martin does not have the chops to pull that off, but hey, if Coldplay wants to make a big 'give worldwide peace a chance' album... it serves an audience, I guess? But said message begins falling apart at the seams pretty quickly as songs like 'Church' and 'Old Friends' seem to be framed a lot more intimately, and that before you factor in a song as cloying as 'Daddy', which is about exactly what you think it is. More alarmingly is the failure of any consistent tone: 'Trouble In Town' actually gets pretty real with its live sample of a violent police encounter, but if you're expecting any deeper criticism of systemic racism beyond platitudes, you're not getting it. And it rapidly gets hard to buy into Chris Martin having any coherent political point when you get a cut like 'Guns', which with its prominent Bob Dylan reference and choppy folk construction is trying to make a sardonic point emphasizing gun control, but the hook is emphasizing how everyone's crazy, maybe even him, and on the first verse mentions how said revolution might need guns... and I'm left thinking this is totally half-assed in trying to say anything that might disrupt the system. Hell, on 'Orphans' Martin's trying to speak from the perspective of a Syrian refugee, and between the weirdly upbeat tone, the increasingly childlike language, and a hook emphasizing going drinking with friends - later mirrored on the title track - there's no sense of understanding any sense of gravitas or urgency in that region! And sure, Coldplay is not trying to untangle geopolitics, but if you travel around the world and the most you pull is this shallow and terrified of stirring any real controversy, your political convictions are not that convincing! But most galling is 'Champion of the World', a song dedicated to Scott Hutchinson, the late singer of Frightened Rabbit, and while this track interpolates one of his songs, it couldn't feel like it missed the point harder, trying for this broadly sketched triumphalism that primarily uses personal pronouns and it doesn't feel like a tribute at all! 

What it feels like is utterly disconnected from emotional reality, of both the situation and the times at large, and thus the more listens I gave to Everyday Life, the more I wondered what purpose a project like this even serves beyond cheap, feel-good pablum - and not even well-constructed pablum at that! I'm not against sentimentality - and let's be blunt, any power this album has in its message comes entirely from that, and Coldplay is great at triggering those feels - but it needs to have some sort of heavier payoff in the music, or a grounding force that's aware systemic change will likely be necessary to achieve those utopian dreams. And Coldplay will never go there, which makes their fleeting attempts at 'revolution' or 'experimentation' utterly toothless; or to put it another way, it's 'thoughts & prayers'. So yeah, 4/10, no recommendation... and I don't even know what I can say to Coldplay anymore, because I expect to be in the minority with this opinion and I don't expect them to change. Instead, they remain the quintessential silent majority act, with this album cementing it - take that as you will.

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