Aural Impressions: Coldplay, A Head Full Of Dreams

In a surprising move following the little-promoted no-world-tour release of last year’s Ghost Stories, Coldplay announced this year that their follow-up seventh (!) album was already being written and would likely be out in a short time.  It was touted as an upbeat companion to the minimal and melancholic Ghost Stories; well, they weren’t kidding.  A Head Full of Dreams is a vastly different affair — one can infer that based on the wacky album art alone.  The music follows suit, in an all-over-the-place lovefest of modern pop music.  It’s different to be sure, like Mylo Xyloto on overdrive, scattered like Viva La Vida, and building on top of the themes of Ghost Stories.  Let me explain:

  1. A Head Full of Dreams:  It begins a lot like Ghost Stories: a gentle fade in of lush instrumentation, bells and synth, soon overcome by an upbeat drum shuffle and a disco-like bass.  Jonny Buckland’s guitar echo’s The Edge and Chris Martin’s vocals do their best Bono.  Aside from a few dissonant production breaks, it’s very reminiscent of U2’s late 1980’s sound.  Of course, the second half of this intro song is anchored by a hook of “ohh ohh ohh”s as Coldplay do their best impression of themselves from 2011.  How many more of these stadium-filling sing-a-longs do they have in them?  It closes on a disjointed, echo-heavy piano riff.  I’ve sorely missed piano in Coldplay’s sound; even if it’s always been there, it feels like it’s been missing for years.
  2. Bird:  Warm and upbeat from the get-go, “Bird” very much sounds like the laid-back sequel to “Hurts Like Heaven.”  Guy’s bass undulates a constant riff as bright flourishes of Jonny’s guitar float above.  Chris’s vocals through the chorus are quick and hurried, almost as if the song could stand to slow down a few BPM.  This album so far has been a sprint and I’m starting to feel tired already.  The bridges shift the melody around a little, the bass forming the foundation of a simple four-chord structure.  It’s basic, but pleasant sounding — aka pop music.  The elongated vocals end suddenly with the word “cool.”  It’s very jarring in its conclusion and the production sounds unpolished.  That’s… different.
  3. Hymn For The Weekend:  Fading in on a choir of Beyoncés harmonizing and birds chirping.  I’m lost.  A hip-hop inspired echoing piano riff with heavy syncopated electronic drums form the basis for this next song.  Assorted percussion join Chris’s speak-song vocals, leading into a booming chorus of deep bass, brass, and Beyoncé.  It’s a song clearly meant for the clubs; not my cup of tea.  The duet reminds me of “Princess of China,” which is so much my least-favorite Coldplay track that I don’t even have it in my music library.  “Hymn” may suffer the same fate — I’m not drawn to anything it has to offer and it certainly doesn’t mesh with what I’ve heard on Dreams so far.  Hopefully, since it has been standard for Coldplay’s last few albums for there be one song I really don’t like, this is it.
  4. Everglow:  Since A Rush of Blood to the Head, I’ve looked forward to every new Coldplay release for that one outstanding new piano track.  “Everglow” might just be the one.  It’s piano-driven (duh), featuring background vocals from Gwyneth Paltrow (?) and a simple R&B styled drum track.  I’m thinking this one could stand on its own without the percussion; I’m hoping a solo-piano version surfaces at some point.  The vocals are downbeat and longing, bringing the earlier rush to a lull.  “Everglow” is very much a 2008-Coldplay kind of track with production that reeks of the modern era.  So far, it’s a standout track.
  5. Adventure of a Lifetime:  The lead single from Dreams begins abruptly with fluttering guitar and chanted unintelligible vocals.  I wasn’t expecting this.  The song soon busts open with piano, funky bass and strummed electric guitar, playing to today’s trend of funk resurgence.  It’s dance-able, tight, but not super catchy.  The production is a bit much, as the instrumentals get low-passed before the choruses.  It says here the song was produced by “Stargate,” whatever that is.  Musically, it doesn’t do a whole lot, sticking to its base three chords for most of its run, vocal chants ubiquitous throughout.  An acoustic slide-guitar joins to play a catchy riff at the end before we’re brought out by a chorus of “woohoo”s.  It’s different, again.  I’m not sure I like it; maybe it will grow on me in the album’s context.  So far, I don’t see myself playing much of this album though, unfortuantely.
  6. Fun:  Another lull, this one built around a heavily-reverbed swirling guitar riff.  It’s utterly unremarkable and draws the listener into complacency before a jarring pre-chorus transition whereupon all of the instrumentation suddenly ceases wakes them up.  The chorus doesn’t quite soar.  In fact, it’s basically just the verse; same instrumentation with different lyrics.  The second verse brings in a guest vocal from Swedish singer Tove Lo, the third guest appearance on this not-even-half-finished album.  The pre-outro chorus shifts into a low-fi type production with Chris and an acoustic guitar.  Normally I’d be interested, however the already weird production of this album just makes this part sound rough and incomplete.  It just doesn’t work for me.  I don’t really know why.
  7. Kaleidoscope:  A classically inspired piano plays, again in lo-fi, before a radio static break and simpler, higher-production piano fades in.  Spoken words, the recitation of the poem “The Guest House” by Rumi, play slowed and with added effects.  The only thing I can think of here is “Fitter Happier.”  It’s inspiring, rather than mechanical and cold.  The short interlude closes with another lo-fi styled recording, this one of “Amazing Grace,” as sung by Barack Obama, so I’ve read.
  8. Army of One:  Funky vocal samples and a swirling soft synth construct the backbone of this next song, the most immediately ear-gripping tune Coldplay has released in years.  Steady drums and a powerful organ lay down the undercurrent; the organ consists only of bass pedals through the verse, chiming bright and loud in the choruses.  Tubular bells and shimmering synth add to the production there.  Chris’s vocals are loud and clear, strong and with purpose.  The only thing I dislike about “Army of One” is the length — its three and a third minute running time feels extremely short to me.  Easily my favorite track on this record.
  9. [X Marks the Spot]:  A hidden track, my copy of the album places it at the start of “Amazing Day.”  It’s deep, dark and heavily produced.  Unfortunately, the vocal mannerisms, lyrics and general poppiness remind me of Miley Cyrus’s various hits.  I don’t listen to her voluntarily.  Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be listening to “X” very much.  On the ranking of Coldplay’s hidden tracks, this falls at the very bottom.
  10. Amazing Day:  Another downbeat track on an album that had me fooled into thinking it was sunshine and rainbows the whole time, “Amazing Day” sounds very much like a Ghost Stories B-side.  It’s mainly piano driven with sparse guitar, drum and bass.  Basically, it’s a “happier” version of “Another’s Arms.”  The outro/bridge features yet another “oh oh oh” sing-a-long chorus; honestly it’s getting a little tiresome at this point.  Lush synth strings are brought in to round out the production effects for the outro, and then it’s over.  Another mostly unremarkable song.
  11. Colour Spectrum:  That’s colour for you Americans.  It’s a short interlude of more shimmering effects, bells and chimes like the title track.  Very much inspired by the electronics of Jon Hopkins heard on such tracks as “Life in Technicolor” and “Midnight.”  Wait, “technicolor?”  Pick a side, Coldplay.
  12. Up&Up:  Staccato and vivacious piano, accompanies by light drums and the occasional attack of strings, “Up&Up” starts very promising.  This is the kind of upbeat I was hoping for.  It’s groovy and catchy.  A deep drone undermines the light verses as the choruses explode in airy happiness.  The chord progression takes a nice turn from D major to F major, another always welcome melodic shift.  Throughout the second verse, a subtle bass riff dances and shimmies around below the track, moving from ear to ear almost unnoticed.  It’s vibrant, almost gospel-like, interesting and ever-changing.  Jonny Buckland brings in one of his most intricate and memorable guitar solos at the bridge, bursting again back into the lush chorus — one that is easily a sing-a-long without trying too hard to be one.  The outro features guitar from Noel Gallagher, pulling the track into Brit-pop territory with a slightly distorted sound rarely heard in Coldplay’s discography otherwise.  Soon it’s just the intro piano again with Chris, an understated and humble ending.  There’s also a brief instrumental closing sample, which feels like it should tie to a previously unresolved motif in the album, but I don’t know where that is.  Odd second-ending aside, this is easily the best closing track on a Coldplay album since “Amsterdam.”  It feels odd to say that, but it’s true, it really has been that long since they’ve ended an album this well.

This one is a toughie.  It’s not the Coldplay I fell in love with in 2003.  It’s not even the one that put out a mostly solid, more-or-less cohesive concept album last year.  A Head Full of Dreams is all over the place, bringing in sounds from across the pop world: funk, hip-hop, dance, and of course, their own last three albums.  Coldplay once stated that their first three albums are a trilogy; looking back, they’re far closer to each other than they are to the rest.  I look at their subsequent four as another “trilogy,” with these last two being two parts of the same whole: dark and light.  Perhaps now the band will take some time off, regroup and come back with another trilogy of albums with another new sound — it was rumored that this would be their last record.  A pity, if that would be true, as they’re absolutely capable of doing better.  A Head Full of Dreams has standout tracks, to be sure, some maybe even among their best, however there is filler here, even more-so than X&Y and Mylo Xyloto had.  It’s scattered, full of random guests, and weirdly produced.  Much like Mylo Xyloto never really grabbed ahold of me and remains gathering dust among Coldplay’s other albums, I feel A Head Full of Dreams will suffer the same fate.  It’s good, just not good enough.

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