05 December 2015

Album Review: Coldplay - A Head Full of Dreams


A Head Full of Dreams is Coldplay’s seventh studio album, which is a lot in today’s terms of disposable media - here today, gone tomorrow. Having been around the block a few times now, the band know what they’re looking for in a record, and here that seems to be a fusion of diversity and unity. Taken as a whole, it’s not a bad collection of songs but I’m not entirely sure that some of the collaborations presented on the album are entirely justified, or indeed beneficial for the music or the band’s sound itself.

My main criticism of A Head Full of Dreams would undoubtedly have to be the influence of Stargate, a pair of Norweigan producers responsible for chart hits such as Rihanna’s Rude Boy, Wiz Khalifa’s Black and Yellow and Katy Perry’s Firework, amongst others. When Adventure of a Lifetime was released as the record’s first single three weeks ago, a lot of listeners were surprised by the impact the duo had had on Coldplay’s signature sound. Those who didn’t like the lengths to which it had been taken should perhaps avoid A Head Full of Dreams since that - coupled with Everglow - is perhaps the most traditionally Coldplay-sounding song of the dozen supplied.

The promotion for this record has, from my perspective, been excellent. We got our first preview way back in September when the band played Amazing Day, the ninth track, during their Global Citizen set, and since the release of Adventure of a Lifetime we’ve heard increasing amounts of the album. As part of their Tidal show a few weeks ago, the album opener (the eponymous A Head Full of Dreams) and closer (Up&Up) were debuted - to considerable (deserved) praise from their fanbase. And in the last week we’ve heard Hymn for the Weekend and Everglow’s studio incarnations as Annie Mac and Zane Lowe’s featured records respectively, as well as an acoustic live version of the latter courtesy of the band’s website. Pretty much all of this had got me excited for the album’s release today, and hitting play on the first track early this morning I was at my most expectant.

What a disappointment then that the studio arrangements leave so much to be desired. The difference is most notable on the aforementioned top and tail of the album, which are both storming live tracks and should be even grander in the studio. However, the dish of the day with Stargate very much appears to be minimalism as on A Head Full of Dreams you’ll find very little of the layered polish that made earlier records such a success. The title track swells into your ears like an over-produced version of Amy Macdonald’s Mr Rock and Roll and has considerably less of the energy that made the live performance so infectious.

Happily things pick up on the second track, Birds, which is one of two occasions where the producers’ influence really works, the other being Army of One. Were this track on Mylo Xyloto, the band’s 2011 LP, the soaring sonics would have been exemplified in particular compared with this realisation but, as it is, the only real problems are those common to all the tracks on the album produced by Stargate; the vocals are mixed too low and it’s virtually impossible to hear parts of the percussion, most notably the hi-hat and the ride which is a shame as they’re both particular favourites of drummer Will Champion.

The third track is probably the one that will have more of the casual listenership most excited. Hymn for the Weekend features Beyonce predominantly right from the start and it’s an unusual collaboration. Like the majority of the contributing artists to this album, there’s no one point where she is afforded the spotlight, instead featuring throughout the track, as well as on Colour Spectrum and Up&Up. It’s a decent track but never feels like it commits to its mood enough to work as well as it could. The title is great, but as is the norm with frontman Chris Martin these days the lyrics aren’t especially neat or eloquent and left this listener longing on this occasion. I understand what he says about expressing his feelings in almost a stream of consciousness, but there are other contemporary artists, such as Marina and the Diamonds, capable of achieving much the same in a much more satisfying fashion.

Next up is the aforementioned Everglow, which features sparse backing vocals from Martin’s ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow. The pair famously revealed their consciously uncoupling last spring, just ahead of Coldplay’s sixth record Ghost Stories. Although that album was very much a break-up story, many of Martin’s lyrics spoke to me of death at the time and in many ways Everglow is a leftover from that emotional palette, but it’s also much better than the majority of Coldplay's 2014 output. It says in four minutes what Ghost Stories failed to in 43. It’s heartfelt and the one place on the album where it feels like the band were allowed to make a track as they want, and indeed I’ve heard that Rik Simpson and Dan Green - two of the fourpiece’s regular producers - had a more proactive role here. It shows.

Slamming onto the record in rather a jarring transition is the uplifting Adventure of a Lifetime. I’ve already talked about this song at some length in my single review but it’s interesting listening to it in the context of the album as a whole. The tracklisting in general feels a bit jumbled, which is odd for Coldplay as they usually manage to create a coherent whole with a clear centrepiece. Adventure of a Lifetime seems to be joyous at a new start, a renewed energy. That’s an odd feeling for a track almost halfway through what’s quite a confused record. After kicking off with a few energetic tunes before slowing it down, it feels strange to have a momentary burst of vibrancy before the pace is taken back down again.

Which brings us onto Fun, the sixth track - and the only one to name its featured artist in the title. I’ve been a fan of Tove Lo for a little over a year now and so was delighted to hear that she was to feature on this track, but again she is criminally underused. Her contribution to this particular song is far less worthy of a title credit than Beyonce’s to Hymn for the Weekend, and I say that with the utmost respect for the Swede. For those that don’t know, she’s also a very talented and successful songwriter; among her recent hits is Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do. With this in mind, it’s a shame she wasn’t allowed to flex her muscles any more. There’s even a verse towards the end of this song where her voice slowly takes precedence over Martin’s which could easily have been a solo effort. This is extremely reminiscent of a Rush of Blood to the Head-era b-side, which is a positive for many, but for me that particular collection of tracks is up there with the blandest of the band’s work. Overall, Fun is drab and would be almost unremarkable if it weren’t for Tove Lo's turn.

Seventh on the album is the first of two interludes - Kaleidoscope. This is undoubtedly the stronger of the pair, with an amiable melody underneath a reading of ‘The Guesthouse’, the poem that reportedly inspired much of the album. There’s a really nice outro to this as well that makes it much more than the throwaway filler track it could have been. Oh, and it features Barack Obama.

Following that is the closest A Head Full of Dreams gets to a centrepiece. Army of One is certainly one of the better tracks on the album and - along with Everglow - feels like one of the few songs on it that develops Coldplay’s sound in a positive and meaningful way. It has a nice lead-in, a pleasing structure and, most crucially, an excellent mix. The lyrics do of course leave you wanting but this is almost faultless as far as Coldplay songs go. The only other qualm I do have with it is the end; the abrupt stop is very neat and often effective but it’s beginning to become a bit overused what with its airing on Ghost Story, its far superior employment on Birds, and now here. That aside, this is a very enjoyable song and exactly what I was hoping for from this record.

Before you have time to catch your breath, the most-publicised hidden track in history kicks into life. X Marks the Spot is notable as Dan Green’s first solo production and on the basis of this I’d be happy to hear more of his work. Thankfully, it’s also a proper track and not just a supplementary piece of music like the majority of the band’s previous hidden tracks - O, Chinese Sleep Chant and Until the Water Flows Over among them. It’s hardly the strongest song on the album but at the same time it’s not the diabolical flop those who listened to the leak would have you believe. A nice little bonus and as such it’s a great fit for a hidden track.

When I initially heard the live version of Amazing Day, I actually thought it the epitomy of vanilla Coldplay but the studio version is marked improvement. The introduction is extremely tiresome but once the song begins in earnest it’s harmless enough, if still a little flat. Amazing Day kind of comes out of nowhere and feels very much like Chris Martin wanted to write a wedding song. It fits that brief well but is a poor cousin of the sadly-abandoned Wedding Bells from 2010. Stargate’s influence is relatively limited here but it’s hard to blame them given what they had to work with. Amazing Day is actually the first of the ten ‘proper’ songs I’d cut but despite that it’s entirely serviceable, just not essential.

Slipping in next is the dodgily-named Colour Spectrum. This acts as the same kind of breather before the final act that Coldplay love adding (see also: A Hopeful Transmission), recapping vocals from several earlier songs over a staccato take on the introduction to the title track. Again, it’s alright, but ultimately fruitless and just a delay in getting to the next song. It’s one that even I will skip.

Closing the record is Up&Up. The live version is truly anthemic, the coming together of people, ideas and emotions that the entire album has been building towards. The studio version, however, is extremely disappointing in comparison. It opens with an odd call-and-repeat in the string section and jumps awkwardly from mood to mood right through to the end of the second chorus. This is the point where it becomes much more akin to the live version and hence improves vastly. By the time of the first guitar solo, I was in love with the song and indeed the remainder is similarly excellent. It’s a real finale of a track, which is what makes it such a shame the production through the early part of the song is so out of place. Thankfully both Jonny Buckland and Noel Gallagher’s heroic guitar solos remain intact, along with the myriad voices that come together to provide a choral denouement. This is the conclusion Coldplay have always wanted to work towards in a closing track - after years of talk of birds, ascension and unity, finally we reach Up&Up. The end of the main song is also disappointing on the part of the production, but I do like the little ‘release me’ outro that wraps the whole album up.

A Head Full of Dreams is Coldplay trying to be all things to all people reaching fever pitch. Here practically every song says exactly the same thing, just using different words. This record was widely built up to be the light to Ghost Stories’ dark but in actual fact the result is more comparable to the band’s third studio album X&Y in its dark meditation and faux-contemplative stance. I don’t think a Coldplay album has ever had such little sonic coherence, but perhaps that’s a result of having more people than ever before involved in its creation. The overall message is clear as Martin sings line after line about now being happy after moving on from the bad thing but he’s never been one to mince his words.

It may sound like I’m being particularly negative or harsh on this record but while my reaction to the album taken as a single entity may be lukewarm, there’s still a lot to love on this record. Consistently scoring points with me are Buckland’s guitar parts, with a highly enjoyable contribution to nearly every track. At the other end of the scale, I feel sorry for bassist Guy Berryman, who only really gets chance to do anything interesting on the title track and Adventure of a Lifetime. I’ve already discussed Will Champion’s percussion part and Martin’s vocals but overall I think this is an especially weakly-mixed album compared to the strengths proven over the last six albums and several million live shows.

I do appreciate new things being tried - even when this record was supposed to be the culmination of the foursome’s career so far - but here not much of Stargate’s influence actually comes off. I was hoping for more of the energy we saw on Mylo Xyloto but that only really comes across in the first two tracks and Adventure of a Lifetime. There are a few standout tracks but overall, despite featuring the most voices yet, on A Head Full of Dreams Coldplay actually end up saying less than ever.





Download:
Birds, Everglow, Army of One, Up&Up

Singles:
So far only Adventure of a Lifetime has been released as a single but given the promotion surrounding the track - including a sticker on the physical edition - I don’t doubt Hymn for the Weekend will end up receiving the same treatment. I also fully expect it to be played during Coldplay’s new-announced headline Superbowl set, no doubt featuring Beyonce. Other likely candidates for singles would appear to be Everglow and Army of One but with Coldplay you never know, especially after the underrated Ink, Lovers in Japan and (particularly) Hurts Like Heaven received unfairly muted releases.

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