Why do I like Coldplay?
It’s a question I get a lot, honestly, and stating it right up front here might make this review seem defensive. But I think it’s important to explore why this is a question people feel compelled to ask. Hating on Coldplay has become an international pastime. They’re one of the biggest bands in the world, and I expect they always will be. At times they seem palpably uncomfortable with that role, but at other times they’re dueting with Rhianna and Beyonce and writing crowd-pleasing stadium-fillers. And as long as they keep doing that, I think they’ll be around for the haters to hate.
Disliking Coldplay is the expected default for someone like me with Opinions About Music, though, and I think that’s a shame. The style Coldplay is best known for is universality – they write accessible, hummable songs about vaguely emotional things, and it’s unsurprising that so many have taken those songs into their hearts. Their early hits, like “Yellow” and “The Scientist” and “Fix You,” are sweeping things with strong undercurrents, and those are harder to write than people think.
But I know I’m supposed to see through such manipulations and not be taken in by them, or so I’m told. This, first off, is nonsense – music is to be enjoyed, and if “Fix You” works for me (and it does), I’m happy to have my emotions manipulated by it. I was surprised when scanning my archives recently that I predicted “Fix You” would be a massive hit. Obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily at the time. It worked for me then, and it works for me now.
And if that were all Coldplay had to offer – lighter-worthy popular balladry – I would still feel OK liking them. I may not evangelize for them as much as I do, but I’d feel fine about it. No, I get the question at the top of this column because I seem to like Coldplay more than their best-known material would indicate that I should, and it surprises a lot of people. Almost always I can count on those people not having ventured much beyond the hits, and not having heard a Coldplay album since probably 2005.
Why do I like Coldplay? Because they’re weird. Honestly, they are. Starting with 2008’s Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends, they embarked on a decade-plus of artistic restlessness that left their “Yellow” sound in the dust. That restlessness has defined them, and is at the heart of their new record, Everyday Life, which I’ll talk about in a moment. But I have been greatly anticipating this new album, and if asked why, I would say the reason is the four records before it, on which this band explored so many different sounds and ideas that they became unpredictable. And there is no more joyous word for me as a music fan than unpredictable.
I don’t want to oversell them. They’re certainly not David Bowie levels of chameleonic. But they haven’t sounded like you’d expect them to for more than 10 years, and they show no signs of wanting to sound like you’d expect them to. They’re weird. And the bottom line for me is that Coldplay, as one of the biggest bands in the world, doesn’t have to be this weird. They could keep churning out the same material, or at least revisit their old sound now and again. But they don’t, and the fact that they choose to keep pushing forward like this makes them worth paying attention to.
I’ve even come to appreciate 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams, which I dismissed as their big pop move, and not a patch on its somber, surprising predecessor, Ghost Stories. This is all still true, but on Head Full of Dreams the band aims for the rafters in completely different ways than they had done before. It stands alone in their catalog, a gleaming and modern-sounding ball of positivity that is meticulously constructed and painstakingly produced. Some of the material still makes me want to hurl it against a wall, especially in the record’s treacly back half, but none of it sounds like Coldplay is supposed to, and I think that’s an interesting quality for an album so overtly interested in being massively popular.
Everyday Life has no interest in popularity. That’s the first fascinating thing about it, and I find the whole thing fascinating. This record is how an impossibly popular band makes an intimate and personal piece of work, I think, and that it is awkward and messy and unsure of how to proceed only adds to that sense. It’s being touted as a double album, even though it manifestly is not: it’s 53 minutes long and comes packaged on a single disc. Its songs are broken up into two loose suites, Sunrise and Sunset, but it works best when you listen to it as a single entity. The band appears on the cover for the first time, but they’re de-emphasized, inserted into a faded photo of guitarist Jonny Buckland’s great-grandfather’s band from 1919.
All of this feels designed to wrong-foot you, to make you uncertain of what to expect, and the album manages that same trick for its whole running time. At first Everyday Life will feel scattered, unfinished, messy. It feels like an entire album made from the interludes and stranger tracks from previous Coldplay efforts. Songs drift in and out, wrapping up before you can get a handle on them. Guest musicians – and there are dozens – take the spotlight, never staying for long, just handing you off to the next sparkling performance. The guiding principle here seems to be to never sound like Coldplay, and they pull it off, but none of these 16 tracks sound anything like any of the others either.
Everyday Life is the most restless album from a band I love specifically for their restlessness. I spent my first listen through in a state of astonishment, not only that the band would create this record, but that Coldplay Inc. would marshal its forces behind releasing it. Despite the double-album fanfare, this is one of the band’s smallest and most intimate things – it’s moody and stark, and several of these tracks seem to feature Chris Martin on his own, accompanied by one instrument as if caught practicing in the corner of the studio. There are no songs here that sound like hits, no songs that 2005 me would predict to take the world by storm.
Instead we have the sound of one of the world’s biggest bands creating something just for themselves. This is their most topical and pointed record – and you know things are bad in the world when even Coldplay is commenting on them – and the whole thing feels like a response to the wave of hatred sweeping over us. Because they are Coldplay, their response is love, but on the way there they get more specific than they ever have about what they are up against. “Trouble in Town” is a foreboding piece of work about racism, and includes a recording of Philadelphia police officer Philip Nace harassing two African-American men on the street. “Guns” doesn’t top two minutes, but it takes aim at the NRA and the proliferation of firearms, Martin proclaiming that “everyone’s gone fucking crazy.”
In that light, the album’s plethora of sounds from around the world feels like a plea for unity. There are lines in Arabic and French, chants in Zulu, and musicians and singers from all over the globe lending their skills to this. There are gospel choirs and children’s choirs, and spoken poetry from Persia and Nigeria. In the end, the message is simple: we are all human beings, and we are all children of God, whatever name you choose to give God. The spirituality here is as all-encompassing as the humanity, which is as all-encompassing as the music.
The weak link, of course, remains Martin’s lyrics, which are often frustratingly banal. “Daddy” is a prime example of a song that is both deeply touching and cringe-worthy – it’s written from the point of view of Martin’s children, missing him when he is gone, so the child-like lyrics work on one level, but are embarrassing on another. “Orphans” tackles the Syrian refugee crisis, and Martin’s stated aim was to depict these refugees as people just like us, hoping to get back to some sense of normalcy. That the best way he could come up with to capture this is “I want to know when I can go back and get drunk with my friends” is prime Chris Martin.
But most of the time, his naked sentimentality works in this record’s favor. Sparkling acoustic pieces like “Eko” and “Old Friends” fit their simple lyrics nicely. The gospel pieces “Broken” and “When I Need a Friend” feel open and vulnerable, and when the band enlists Femi Kuti’s extraordinary horn section for the astounding highlight “Arabesque,” Martin’s words about how we share the same blood seem worthy of the power behind them. (Seriously, this song, with its two-minute saxophone solo, is amazing.)
Best of all, when the band brings it all together at the end with their most Coldplay-esque material, Martin’s naked emotional writing does the trick nicely. After an album of turmoil, the title track comes gliding in like a minor classic, soaring without erupting into cheesiness. I probably shouldn’t admit how affected I am whenever Martin repeats “you got to keep dancing when the lights go out,” but man, it really works for me. The song is a marvel of restraint, keeping things quiet even when the band’s instincts might send them into orbit. Even the ending hallelujahs could have been so much bigger, and I’m grateful that they’re not. The ending is graceful instead of overpowering.
I’d never suggest that Everyday Life is a perfect record. In fact, it’s the imperfections I like most about it. For a band so polished, so methodical to deliver something so messy and personal is a gift. I never know what kind of album I’m going to get from this band, and this one was a genuine surprise, one I am still diving into. You won’t find anything like “Clocks” here, but you will find a band pushing itself to create something outside their own boundaries, something that speaks love into the world with as much boldness as they can muster. That’s Everyday Life, and I love it immensely.
So why do I like Coldplay? Listen to this record. All the reasons are here.
Next week, Beck and Leonard Cohen, and then we dive into the end-of-the-year festivities. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.