Coldplay struggles with impulse on ‘A Head Full of Dreams’

By Jackson Maxwell

(Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
(Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

The first sign the world got of what was in store with Coldplay’s seventh full-length album was its guest list.

There was Beyoncé, former Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, Tove Lo, Gwyneth Paltrow (Chris Martin’s ex-wife and the obvious subject of last year’s maddeningly uneven breakup post-mortem, “Ghost Stories,”) and – because why not – President Barack Obama.

Only Coldplay, rock’s eternal humanists, would think of inviting rock’s biggest curmudgeon (Gallagher,) the queen of pop and the subject of a breakup album they made just a year and a half ago onto the same record. And only on a Coldplay album would such a motley crew of guests make any sense whatsoever.

Since the band went supernova with 2002’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” Coldplay has never confidently put all their eggs into one basket. On “Ghost Stories,” the band’s startlingly fresh ventures into moody, sparse atmospherics (singles “Midnight” and “Magic” especially) clashed terribly with the still-dreadful, dance floor-ready Avicii collaboration, “A Sky Full of Stars.”

Similarly, 2005’s “X&Y,” another album where the quartet also pushed for a more muted outlook, will always be remembered primarily for “Fix You,” the band’s most bloated tearjerker. Coldplay has never been able to shake its need to be all things to all people at once, something that, in just looking at the guest list for “A Head Full of Dreams,” never mind even listening to it, the band clearly hasn’t shaken.

“A Head Full of Dreams,” released Dec. 4, can be quite clearly seen for what it is: a reactionary outpouring that acts as the fraternal twin of “Ghost Stories.” While the latter album lived, and thrived in, the colorless aftermath of a relationship, when expression of any kind takes concerted effort, “A Head Full of Dreams” is nothing but a group of excitable expressions, all of which the listener is forced to assess at face value.

You are immediately tossed into this whirlpool with the buoyant title track, which is all high hats, disco bass lines and guitar leads straight out of U2’s “The Joshua Tree.” Although it’s easy to see right through the song’s U2-meets-New Order line of execution, Chris Martin takes the listener’s concerns about being derivative and answers them with a triumphant set of stadium-charging “Ooo”s, rendering them, for the moment, irrelevant.

It’s Martin’s most convincing moment as a performer in years. He’s got a head full of dreams, and with the world at his back, he’s going to make the listener feel as light-headed and jubilant as he is.

The opener is blinding, but it may or may not stun the listener long enough to shield them from how Jonny Buckland’s lovely guitar leads on “Birds” serve to obscure the unnerving similarities of bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion to the bass and percussion parts on The Cure’s song, “Close To Me.”

And, this is far from the only time on “A Head Full of Dreams” that Coldplay quite brazenly copies the work of others. The beat to the R&B-inflected “hidden track,” “X Marks the Spot” is quite literally that of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” while the lead guitar on “Amazing Day” follows the melody of John Barry’s theme to the 1969 film, “Midnight Cowboy,” almost exactly.

And, even when the band isn’t directly lifting from others, the group is still taking obvious cues. Beyoncé does almost all of the heavy lifting on “Hymn for the Weekend,” turning it into a Beyoncé song that just so happens to prominently feature Chris Martin on vocals. On the piano ballad, “Everglow,” Coldplay lazily copies from its own catalog, turning in the most turgid slow-burner of its career.

Even lead single, “Adventure of a Lifetime,” seems to try to copy the formula of the title track, with leads straight out of The University of The Edge and those same, pulsating disco bass lines. Having blown its cover, the band doesn’t have the confidence to pull off the same trick twice, making the intended high point of the album feel like an extended anti-climax.

Elsewhere, the album’s stronger points are often overcome by the group’s newfound love for overdone effects. The cut-up vocals that maintain a constant presence behind “Army Of One” deflect some of the spotlight away from one of the record’s strongest melodies.

Gospel-inflected closer “Up&Up,” aside from its cringe-inducingly simplistic lyrics (“Lying in the gutter, aiming for the moon/trying to empty out the ocean with a spoon,” “How can people suffer? How can people part?/ How can people struggle? How can people, break your heart?”) also has an overabundance of trickery that makes one wonder if the band had just discovered guitar pedals for the first time.

Its many faults non-withstanding, “A Head Full of Dreams” can never quite be called a grueling slog. Because it’s a Coldplay album, it has the band’s incredibly charming, almost dopey, earnestness. One can imagine Chris Martin sitting at his computer, getting emotional at the sight of President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, and thinking that the only way he could share this emotional response with the world was by sticking a sample of it on the new Coldplay album.

Of course the sample is an absurd inclusion, but one can’t help but admire the band for their total lack of self-consciousness.

Even more so than its predecessor, “A Head Full of Dreams” is a total grab bag, an album that tries to please anyone and everyone. One minute it’s disco, the next it’s R&B, the next schmaltzy adult contemporary, the next spoken-word poetry. And by diving headfirst into each and every one of those urges, the album stretches itself more thinly than any Coldplay album before it.

But while they stretch themselves too thinly, one gets the sense, as always with Coldplay, that they believe wholeheartedly in what they are doing. In an age where it’s too easy to be cynical, you can listen to Coldplay throw its entire being into a wildly uneven semi-pop album that samples President Obama and think, if nothing else, here’s a band that, for all the constant criticism that has come its way, still wears its heart completely on its sleeve.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.