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Coldplay’s 'Music of the Spheres’ review: An over-the-top cosmic lovefest

The band’s new album takes the cosmos as its latest concept, but the interstellar lovefest grows numbing as the record runs on

The Wall Street Journal Oct 20, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Coldplay’s 'Music of the Spheres’ review: An over-the-top cosmic lovefest

Coldplay is deep enough into its career that each new album comes packaged with a story. It’s no longer sufficient to issue a new collection of songs every few years, as the group did for a while following its 2000 debut, “Parachutes.” Now, the band challenges itself with concepts. For 2019’s “Everyday Life,” that meant trying out rootsy styles from around the world, from Black American gospel to Afrobeat, while frontman Chris Martin sang about political struggles. If that LP was the group’s attempt at tackling global sounds and earthbound subject matter, its ninth studio collection, “Music of the Spheres” (Parlophone/Atlantic), out now, finds Coldplay turning its attention to the cosmos.

The new LP comes with its own cosmology—the cover features an arrangement of planets, moons and satellites in a solar system, each corresponding to a song. In May, the band even introduced a single, “Higher Power,” on the International Space Station. But while the record’s content is connected to the wonders of the universe as uncovered by science, producer Max Martin (no relationship to Chris) is the man who handles the logistics. The Swedish song doctor, with a huge string of hits stretching from Britney Spears’s 1998 single “. . . Baby One More Time” to the Weeknd’s 2020 No. 1 “Blinding Lights,” is known for bringing mathematical precision to music-making. With Max Martin in charge, you can be sure that every chorus will explode at the optimal moment to maximize its impact on the pop listener’s pleasure center.

That said, while there are singles here with the broad gestures necessary for chart success, there’s a progressive rock undercurrent, with instrumental interludes that connect the songs and give the record a cinematic bent. One of these, “Music of the Spheres I,” opens the album, setting the tone with a gurgling synthesizer pattern and a robotic voice speaking the record’s title. This ambient teaser fades into “Higher Power,” which has a towering and undeniable chorus that introduces the LP’s primary theme: Love is ultimately the binding force in the universe.

By the time the following track, the equally anthemic “Humankind,” kicks in, the album has reached escape velocity. On the page, the latter’s lyrics are muddled and a little silly—“A DJ a star away is / Playing it to turn us on” goes an early line, while the chorus answers with “I know I know I know / We’re only human / But from another planet / Still they call us Humankind”—but the musical structure is perfectly designed for stadium singalongs.

The instrumental “Alien Choir” is one of five of the record’s songs titled with emojis (the written titles are shared elsewhere but don’t appear on the sleeve or on most streaming platforms). These include an image of Saturn for the opening track, a heart for “Human Heart,” and an infinity sign for a track late in the set. Something about this gesture feels a little awkward and possibly even desperate, as if Coldplay were worried about becoming a band for old people that today’s kids wouldn’t understand. And to an extent, this anxiety extends to the record’s choice of guests.

The best outside contribution comes from R&B duo We Are King on “Human Heart,” an a cappella number that combines layered harmonies with digital processing to sound ancient and futuristic simultaneously. Singer Selena Gomez appears on “Let Somebody Go,” a cloying ballad that is among the record’s worst tracks, and superstar Korean boy band BTS guests on the explosive single “My Universe,” which, fueled by that group’s devout fans, has already topped the Billboard Hot 100. Despite energetic singing and rapping from BTS, “My Universe” is mostly an excuse for its massive and indelible chorus. It’s alternately compelling and annoying, driving home how the LP is hampered by its marriage of relentless positivity and over-the-top sonics.

There’s beauty in this music—the mix of rock instrumentation and electronics can be stunning, bringing to mind the production mastery of Tame Impala. But there’s remarkably little tension. In the world of this record, problems have already been solved, and there’s no real messiness or uncertainty. This interstellar fantasy grows numbing as the record runs on. It doesn’t help that the bad songs here are really bad—“People of the Pride,” a cringe-inducing number about corrupt leaders that is propelled by a dull glam-rock guitar line, is perhaps the worst offender. “Biutyful,” a “Forever Young”-like wish for the future happiness of a loved one, erases its pleasant message when Chris Martin duets with an annoyingly cartoonish pitched-up version of his own voice.

The instrumental “Infinity Sign” bleeds into the 10-minute closer “Coloratura,” a wonderfully constructed epic offering a vision of paradise (“It’s the end of death and doubt / And loneliness is out”) that hints at the better record that could have been. It sounds like something that might provide the soundtrack at a light show in a planetarium, moving through pulsing synths and washes of drone while a proper song surfaces and then retreats. Coldplay’s mission is seemingly to connect with as many people as possible—it didn’t become one of the biggest rock bands on the planet by accident—and some of the singles here, goosed by Max Martin’s ear for mass appeal, will surely further that goal. But there are moments of musical and textural invention on “Music of the Spheres” that one wishes were built out further. Perhaps one day they will be, on a future Coldplay concept album that avoids the most obvious choices.

—Mr. Richardson is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRichardson.

by MarkRichardson

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