The Critic: Coldplay’s A Head Full Of Dreams

Coldplay1

By Antony. The world only stops for Adele. When most artists release an album, it disperses across various media outlets, climbs the iTunes download chart, and then, more than likely, disappears into the informational oblivion of the internet. Even a band as big as Coldplay is at risk of this happening to them.

Even as we continue turning art into information-packets, I knew the release of Coldplay’s A Head Full Of Dreams would be for me a small community event. The very same internet that destroys history also enables one to keep in touch with friends near and far. As I put on the new Coldplay on Friday, December 4th, I imagined three of my friends doing the same wherever they are. 

1.

I imagine it a cold winter morning in DC, my friend finishes uploading the album to share, downloads it to his phone, puts on his coat, and heads to the Metro. I imagine him on the train, thick with the steam of people moving from the cold into the packed car; the tunnel lights whiz by as he tries to make sense of his initial impressions of the first few songs until he gets to his stop, makes his way off the train and into the cold. A real believer burned once too many times by Coldplay, he knows the album isn’t as bad as he feared it might be. He feels the tug of true belief once more. He claims agnosticism, but continues to hope the second half of the album will sweep him off his feet the way A Rush Of Blood To The Head did.

Across the country, on a crisp but sunny morning in Los Angeles, my second friend takes in the spectacular view of the Pacific from his firm’s windows, his mind already occupied with the matters of the day ahead. He puts on the new record, having prepared his cynicism for an easy victory. And there are victories to be had here. Dig into Chris Martin’s lyrics and you’ll find a couplet capable of ruining an entire song. The featured guests threaten a sad play for pop-relevance. But listening, my friend finds himself in-between. Still unable to embrace Coldplay, he also realizes this album isn’t Mylo Xyloto 2. [That album, among my friends, is universally recognized as a catastrophe. It actually hurt me to listen to it.] Falling short of being a surprisingly great album and failing to provide the sugar-rush of cynicism, I imagine this album will quickly fade for my friend. He’ll listen a couple of more times, but it’ll be habit more than desire, and soon it will be forgotten.

My third friend recently moved to the beautiful, forested coast of northern Washington state. Not surprisingly, I miss him. We haven’t discovered that long-distance-friend equilibrium yet. How often do we speak? How seriously when we do? In this uncertainty, I appreciated our text exchange a few weeks back about the bizarre disco of the first A Head Full Of Dreams single, “Adventure Of A Lifetime.” Confusion and disappointment, we agreed. So on this morning, as the album loops on my second listen, I try to imagine my friend’s experience. How is he listening to it? Does he put it on for his morning walk? Perhaps silence is more appropriate in that setting. Does he steal an hour here or there? Is it a headphoned, midnight listen when everyone else is asleep? However he listens to it, what does he think? I know he appreciates the good pop hooks. His photographic memory might make it hard for him to forget the record’s missteps and to take it in as a whole. Then again, if you let it, there’s a real generosity in pop music that let’s you zero in on what you need the songs to be. My friend knows this to be true; I imagine him finding what he needs in A Head Full Of Dreams.

Coldplay“Adventure Of A Lifetime”

2.

coldplayI quickly figured out that I couldn’t approach A Head Full Of Dreams like other albums. Coldplay and I have history. Most recently, Ghost Stories rekindled the fire. From reading other reviews, I see that lots of people gleefully dismissed Ghost Stories, but it was the first Coldplay album in many years that I loved. Oh, I won’t defend it as a classic or anything, but it’s easily the album I’ve listened to the most in the last two years. It’s like a friend; as it loops and loops, the bumps are smoothed out until you’re left with only a good feeling. The flow of the album works—even the seemingly out-of-place rave anthem “A Sky Full Of Stars” fits. It’s the joyful release after the blues and grays of the first seven songs. Chris Martin warned us that A Head Full Of Dreams would be different; it takes “A Sky Full Of Stars” as its departure point.

On the first few listens, I nitpicked. This song seems incomplete. That song’s lyrics aren’t very good. Is that song aping Drake? I’m so bored by Drake and the Drake-ification of pop music! And really, if “Up&Up” is supposed to be the grand finale, then shouldn’t it do more? It’s thin and predictable. Then I had to stop.

I’d rather enjoy the album, so I forced myself to take up a new listening strategy. I had to reconsider how I heard it. I burned the album onto a CD, adding “Miracles,” a soundtrack song that’s a bonus track on some version of A Head Full Of Dreams. I then exclusively listened to it in my car for the next week. It worked. I was a changed man, or at least, my view of the album changed. It revealed itself to me as the big, sometimes dumb, joyous pop record that it is. To ask anything else of it seems to say more about where you are at this point in your life than it says about the album itself. As far as big pop albums go, I dig it.

I like some songs more than others, but none of that matters much. I think “Hymn For The Weekend” is ridiculous, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t singing it to myself for an entire day at work. My disappointment in “Adventure Of A Lifetime” has dissipated. I no longer wonder what exactly the song is trying to do; I feel it as a colorful burst of sound between two ballads. That’s enough. Even the reading of the Rumi poem in “Kaleidoscope” hits the right balance for me. Coldplay’s sincerity has long been their virtue and vice. Here, in the arc of the album, the reflective moment, backed with Martin’s melodic piano, works for me.

My change in perspective on A Head Full Of Dreams is made complete with “Up&Up.” I now find comfort in the song’s predictability. It’s like listening to a worship song. You already know what’s coming, but that’s okay if (and only if) you let it take you there because it’s a good place to be. Maybe it helps that it’s no longer the grand finale since “Miracles” follows it on the disc I burned. “Up&Up” is no longer the closer, but it’s the climax that now resolves into one of the finer recent Coldplay songs. If A Head Full Of Dreams is Coldplay’s final album—as some have interpreted Chris Martin’s comments to mean (though I don’t)—then I’m happy to close the circle with “Miracles” taking me right back to the “we live in a beautiful world” of “Don’t Panic,” the first song on Coldplay’s debut Parachutes.

Coldplay“Miracles”

4 thoughts on “The Critic: Coldplay’s A Head Full Of Dreams

  1. So from the perspective of a longtime Coldplay defender, I think you and I have very similar opinions that still differ a lot in their, shall we say, color? What I mean is, I agree with you on the details: that Ghost Stories is highly underrated, that some of the individual tracks on this new one are surprisingly solid, and that expectations matter a great deal when listening to Coldplay. As you say, what you think about this album says more about you than it does about the album. And yet you ultimately seem to have a more optimistic take on the album than I can claim to have. You are absolutely correct that I was relieved to realize it wasn’t Mylo Xyloto 2. But I was outright annoyed at the pop inflections on songs like “Adventure Of A Lifetime.” Regardless of the higher quality of the result, the motivation that drove this album and Mylo Xyloto are clearly the same: the desire to transcend rock and be the world’s biggest pop stars. The liberal use of guest stars is evidence enough of that. I ask you this: in all of rock history, has there ever been a band so transparently desperate to be loved as Coldplay?

    I think this is where the animosity that so many people have for them started. It’s a turn-off, like a suitor trying way to hard to impress a girl. As they say in that instance, it’s better to be yourself—and yet I’m not sure Coldplay even has a “themselves” anymore. They’re whatever they think you want them to be. The irony is that, by wanting to court both rock fans and pop fans, they inevitably please neither.

    None of that is to say that this album lacks any redeeming qualities. I actually like “Everglow” a lot and, like you, I think “Up&Up” is better than people give it credit for. The guitar work is beautiful as always (especially when they don’t let annoying pop vocal loop effects intrude upon it, like they do in “Adventure Of A Lifetime”). But all of that said, I have a feeling that, like my counterpart in LA, this album will only merit a few listens before it’s forgotten.

  2. I think you have it backwards…Coldplay are not whatever they think you want them to be. I think they’ve transcended and they are whatever you want them to be.

  3. I think you can say that if you’re speaking strictly about the quality of their music. You’re right — whether you personally like their music turns a lot upon who you are as a person and where you are in life. But when I say that Coldplay is whatever they think you want them to be, I’m talking about the style they themselves aspire to. I’m talking about the creative decisions they make when they go into the studio and begin the writing and recording process. They very obviously and very consciously are trying to be something with each new album. On Mylo Xyloto they were trying to transition from Brit rock into straight-up pop (not coincidentally during those first years where it had become clear that being megastars now required you to cater more to the Disney Channel crowd than the Rolling Stone crowd). On Ghost Stories, they were trying to answer the critics of Mylo Xyloto by showing they could still do a more personal and introspective album (“A Sky Full Of Stars” notwithstanding). And on A Head Full Of Dreams, they’re trying to swing the pendulum back the other way and become a one-stop Super Bowl halftime show (which, given the timing of that announcement right next to their album dropping, is way too convenient to be a coincidence). You can see the agenda, clear as day, behind each album. And in each case, they’re trying to be what they think you want them to be.

  4. I think this is a case of emergence. It only looks like a conscious pattern of need, but really it emerged from a series of small, not particularly related decisions. I think they’ve been pretty clear that Ghost Stories and Head Full of Dreams should be thought of together and as two purposefully distinct sounds that have been part of Coldplay from the start. Putting aside cynicism, they’ve already used high profile pop guests — Jay Z on “Lost” and Rihanna on “Princess of China.” So it seems natural enough that when they divide their sound one album (GS) is insular and the second is out-sized pop, stuffed with friends. To me, their progression makes sense without a complex psychological theory of insecurity and desire to be loved. Each album got bigger and bigger until these last two where they experimented with dividing the elements of their sound. If they wanted to please audiences, Ghost Stories is not what they should have done and not how they should have promoted it (only a handful of shows, paired with announcement that AHFOD was coming “soon”).

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