By guest blogger Akshath Ranganathan
The fact that it has been a little over 21 years since British Alternative Rock band Coldplay released their debut album “Parachutes” truly puts the passage of time into perspective. The band’s meteoric rise especially in the US music scene was rather unexpected. In 2001, the US music mainstream could not have been more inward looking in its geocentric bias. British acts that enjoyed widespread appeal outside the US routinely found themselves relegated to obscurity in the US by key music gatekeepers (terrestrial radio being the most significant of these). Yet, somehow Coldplay was unique in their ability to slip through a seemingly impenetrable (to British artists) bubble that was the American mainstream. Cynics can be forgiven for thinking that the inclusion of Coldplay at American award ceremonies and on stages shared with hip-hop heavyweights was the industry’s attempt at fulfilling a diversity quota to display a modicum of credibility in an era defined by sonic homogeneity. Despite being an alt-rock band, Coldplay fraternized with American pop royalty and were often lumped into the pop genre. Hence, it should be no surprise that they have embraced this cultural legacy of theirs whole-heartedly at least on half of their new album “Music of the Spheres” – a strategy that is likely to pay off handsomely for them while potentially riling up critics that might cave in to the temptation of accusing the band of selling out.
Their first and most obvious embrace of a pop sound comes from handing over the production reins of the album to Swedish producer and hit songwriter Max Martin – the unsung hero behind hits for the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Usher.
The second overture to a pop (and younger) audience comes in the form of collaborations with South Korean pop group BTS and pop star Selena Gomez. Artists from yesteryear collaborating with current artists/producers in an endeavor to break through to a younger audience and chart on the Billboard top 40 is a commonly deployed strategy with mixed results. Carlos Santana pulled it off in 1999 with his hit single “Smooth” with featured vocalist Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 (while the band was still in their commercial prime). New wave gods Duran Duran were unable to pull this off with the singles from their 2007 album “Red Carpet Massacre” which featured hitmaker Justin Timberlake as a key collaborator and hit producer Timbaland (both of whom were in their commercial prime too). Coldplay did not take chances on their choice of a young act and went straight for BTS – the Kpop genre’s biggest name in the game. Kpop fans constitute a potent and pervasive subculture that has proliferated all over the world. They are known for their dizzying levels of obsession with their Kpop idols (especially acts such as BTS and Blackpink). Furthermore, their ability to mobilize outcomes is quite unparalleled. These outcomes range from influencing music chart positions of singles on music charts of consequence to derailing a rally in Oklahoma for former US President Donald Trump. In an article by the Economist titled “Dungeons and dimples: how to speak K-pop“, the author states that “K-pop is South Korea’s most influential cultural export. This blend of flawless dance routines and catchy melodies sung by coiffed, clear-skinned youths in coordinating outfits has found an enthusiastic audience across the globe, even managing to penetrate the North’s closely guarded borders”. The collaboration with BTS works far better than the one with Selena Gomez does.
“My Universe”, the second single from “Music of the spheres” is a surprise mixed-language collaboration with BTS. This 80s influenced track is characterized by its disco-esque bassline, funky clean guitar tones, and gated reverb on the drums. The song’s EDM outro, while fun, seems rather incongruous with the overall synth-pop vibe of “My Universe”. The contributions from a number of songwriters on “My Universe” give it the ingredients of a hit record. What we are left with is pleasant, albeit lightweight and with a rather pedestrian melody on the song’s chorus. Yet, the song’s fate was predetermined the moment Coldplay chose to feature BTS on it. The strength of the BTS fanbase landed Coldplay their second US #1 single ever (their first being “Viva La Vida” in 2008 – a song whose success many attributed to a long snippet of the song being featured in an Apple ad aired during the commercial break for “American Idol”). The larger question that this single’s success poses is whether or not music from artists from yesteryear can stand on its own merit or does it require riding on the coattails of an artist with a large, young, and ardent following to have chart success. The lyrically simplistic and safe “Higher Power”, the album’s uptempo 80s-style lead single, with its rich textures and cool harmonies, is far superior to “My Universe” but did not even crack the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in the US. Its commercial trajectory might answer the question posed earlier about whether music can chart on its own merit (at least in the US).
“Let somebody go”, the duet with Selena Gomez benefits from its minimalist soundscape (reminiscent of Coldplay’s “Ghost Stories” album) sprinkled with cool backing harmonies and meaningful lyrics. The weakest ingredient in this song is Selena Gomez. Her vocal delivery is dull and lacks the soul that lead singer Chris Martin exudes in contrast. This is a pity, since her presence on the song was probably a calculated attempt at building bridges to a younger audience – albeit likely a failed attempt.
It is entirely possible that the focus on Coldplay’s collaborations could eclipse two very defining elements of this album (and it would be a shame if it does).
The first of these defining elements is Coldplay’s bucking the expectations of a predominantly pop record in favor of stylistic diversity while maintaining thematic cohesion across the album. The noteworthy highlights of this album attribute are:
People of The Pride:
While Coldplay has always been classified as an Alt-rock band, their sound has been closer to the pop end of the musical spectrum. On this song, Coldplay celebrates their genre-label with the hardest sound they’ve had since “Square One” from their “X&Y” album. They emulate Fall Out Boy with the song’s guitar riffs and marry it with the theatrics of “The Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance. The strength of the song’s lyrics lies in their ambiguity. There are potential references to the LGBTQ community (typically thought of as punching bags for religious fundamentalists) via lyrics such as ‘The man who swears he’s god, Unbelievers will be shot” and of course in the song’s title. There is also a hint of rebellion aimed at political leaders but expressed from the viewpoint of soldiers that claim “We’re no longer gonna fight for some old crook and this crimes”. The song also benefits from sonic embellishments such as its “Yeah Yeah Yeah” section (which is stylistically similar to the “oh-oh-oh’s” in U2’s 2004 hit single “Vertigo” from “How to dismantle an atomic bomb”) and its guitar solo at the end.
Human Heart (with We Are King & Jacob Collier):
This predominantly acapella track with its sparse arrangement goes against the grain of the bells and whistles associated with a Max Martin production. Processed vocals can detract from a song. Fortunately, their measured use on “Human Heart” accentuates the trademark rich harmonies associated with Jacob Collier. American R&B duo We are King may be under-utilized in a song that feels shorter than it should be. “Human Heart” reveals the band’s experimental streak.
The song is split between an EDM sound and Coldplay channeling “Discovery” era Daft Punk. The second half of this song could be thought of as an energetic version of “Veridis Quo” by Daft Punk. Its closest sonic cousin on the “Ghost Stories” album is “Midnight” – a song that stands on its own but that is often used to create an ambience during a Coldplay live concert as the band is taking a break. “Infinity Sign” could serve that exact purpose when Coldplay embarks on their world tour for “Music Of The Spheres”.
The second defining element of Coldplay’s “Music of the Spheres” is their desire to celebrate the age-old album format – a concept whose significance started to be lost when mixtape culture became ubiquitous. The erosion of the album as a collection of songs united by a common stylistic or thematic thread was accelerated by the un-bundling of albums in the early 2000s with the advent of legal digital downloads. Coldplay does not hide their love for what might become an antiquated relic of the past in the not-so-distant future. “Music of the Spheres” is a space-themed concept album – something that is made abundantly clear with the album’s first track “Music of the spheres”. It serves as a prologue to the album and bears striking similarities to “Kaleidoscope” and “Color Spectrum” from the band’s “A Head full of dreams” album. The band’s use of interludes serves as appropriate transitions between songs. The first noteworthy example of this is the “Alien Choir” – a shoegazy interlude that serves as an outro for the song “Humankind” (but was probably excluded from the track to reduce the song’s length) in the same way that the interludes do for the songs on the “Viva la Vida or Death & All His Friends” album. The female vocals buried in the mix sows the seeds for the presence of Selena Gomez for the following track. The second “Music of the spheres” interlude sounds like unintelligible autotuned gibberish but when played backwards it says “Gentleman and ladies, to welcome music of the spheres, remember, everyone is an alien somewhere” – a remarkably profound statement. Its inclusion right before “My Universe” speaks to a miscalculation on the band’s part with the track sequencing. This interlude might have fit better at the beginning of the album along with the first track and seguing into “My universe”.
The most striking aspect of Coldplay’s celebration of the album format comes in the form of the album’s majestic 10-minute grand finale – “Colorotura”. It is a blend of psychedelic rock in the vein of Pink Floyd and an orchestral sound. It is yet another reminder of the album’s space theme. Will Champion’s backing harmonies make for great sonic embellishments that add immense melodic and chordal richness to the song. There is abundant use of space noise samples. The song feels like a celebration of the Beatles, Queen, Elton John, U2 and finally Coldplay. Piano motifs are used cleverly as the connective tissue for the song’s distinct sections. This is Coldplay at their most ambitious and unshackled as they fuse genres, time periods, and styles seamlessly.
An un-bundled version of this album is NOT likely to work as well for the listener as it would if listened to as a whole. It is meant to be an album and not a collection of singles strung together. This brings us to the question of whether the album has any more radio-worthy singles. In this realm, the band may have played its best cards in advance of the album’s release. The best they have as a follow-up single is “Humankind” – a song that is quite reminiscent of “Every teardrop is a waterfall” from the “Mylo Xyloto” album”. Its mix of acoustic guitars, keyboards, and melodic lines bring to mind “Castle on the hill” by Ed Sheeran.
“Music of the spheres” is a positively mixed bag of songs with a fairly strong underlying theme to the album. Max Martin has brought in an obvious stylistic change in the band while producing them. In doing so, he has also allowed the group to be more creative and break out of the box that they seemed to have built for themselves in the mid 2010s, This is similar to what Brian Eno did for the group in 2007-08 when he produced the album “Viva la Vida”. While this album is no “Viva La Vida” in terms of pure experimentation in creative style, Max Martin’s contributions seem to have helped the band find its footing after some of the relatively soulless but polished pop tracks from “A Head Full of Dreams” and the slightly confused overall tone of “Everyday Life”. The album “Music of the Spheres” is a fun mix of relatively diverse music that has something for everyone but is most of all, at its core, a pretty cohesive album. In a day and age where singles are the big-ticket item and all the other tracks seem to just exist to fulfill contractual agreements, “Music of the spheres” delivers a solid album experience where tracks take on a bigger meaning when looked at in context of a cohesive whole. This demonstrates that Coldplay are still one of the few bands that hold a level of reverence for the traditional album. They unabashedly aim to create a thematic whole that rewards the listener for taking the time to listen to the album from start to finish. Music of the spheres is the 9th studio album by Coldplay and rounds out 21+ years since their debut LP “Parachutes” released in a satisfying and meaningful way that shows the progression and changes in style for each of the members of the band and the group as a whole while spreading a message of peace, love and positivity at a time when people need it the most.
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
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