Last year’s dour Ghost Stories album brought Coldplay the worst reviews, and poorest sales of their career, its mopey, navel-gazing immersion in Chris’n’Gwynny’s conscious uncoupling turning fans off in droves.
In this context, A Head full of Dreams represents a deliberate reversion to the band’s former core business of strenuous emotional uplift and arena-sized singalong hooks. There’s even a track actually called just “Fun”, which is about as blunt as it gets, with Tove Lo joining Chris Martin in his desperate assertion, “Didn’t we have fun? Don’t say it’s all a waste.”
Hang on, that doesn’t sound much like fun, it sounds like yet more hand-wringing excavation of old emotional wounds; and musically, it’s not much fun either, just the recycling of familiar Coldplay tropes.
By that point, halfway through the album, it’s already become evident that the uncoupling continues to echo through Martin’s consciousness, a surmise made excruciatingly apparent in the downtempo piano ballad “Everglow”.
It’s another case, like Adele, of public emotional laundry. And where Adele blowtorches the issue with her soulful delivery, Martin just comes across here as a guileless nebbish. This earth, you think, will never be scorched and purified, the taint will linger a while yet over the band’s work.
Which is a shame, as elsewhere on A Head Full of Dreams there are indications of a more positive approach. The title track lopes in cheerfully, quickly developing an air of forceful, striding goodwill and positivity, with arpeggiating ticks of guitar and cycling keyboard phrases animating Martin’s wonderment at “miracles at work” in “a world I haven’t seen” – a welcome celebration of imagination and creation.
“Birds” rides another eager, galloping groove, against a twinkling backdrop of tingling guitar notes; but it’s the bass that drives this along, more so than I can recall with Coldplay, with the later stages whipped along by little flecks of slide guitar, like the crop sparingly applied to its haunch. Again, the message is positive: “Close your eyes and see/We’ll be birds, flying free”.
Here, and on the engaging single “Adventure of a Lifetime”, with its slick funk groove, spiralling guitar hook and perky percussion, it seems that the band might have found a way through to something close to dance-pop, without having to hang a huge hook around the song’s neck.
But the absence of those usual big arena hooks proves critical through the rest of the album, when the songs don’t quite hit home.
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Despite the impressive chorale of cross-cutting banked harmonies created by Beyoncé for the intro of “Hymn for the Weekend”, the song’s desperate assurances of “feeling drunken high… let me shoot across the sky” plunge Icarus-like, as the momentum is dissipated in a series of empty flourishes.
Likewise, the contributions of Noel Gallagher and backing-vocal legend Merry Clayton are wasted on the pallid “Up & Up”. Elsewhere, the contribution of concert pianist Khatia Buniatishvili to the brief “Kaleidoscope” seems somewhat token.
Neither is quite as surprising, however, as “X Marks the Spot”, a second track appended to the otherwise dull “Army of One”. A miasmic lite-funk groove of watery keyboard textures, it features a vocal that’s surely the closest Chris Martin will ever get to rap, as he surveys a happier emotional landscape. “I know and I know I’m in love, and I know when I’m not,” he speak-sings. “I know what I got/X marks the spot.” Whether this is exactly the spot Coldplay need to be in is debatable; but for now, it’s a move in the right direction.
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