In another time, it would have been incredibly stupid to release a Coldplay album just off the heels of an Adele release. Adele has cornered the market in the tears department, and will continue doing so for at least another month. But in this case, the timing works well. Coldplay’s seventh outing A Head Full of Dreams is an unusually feel-good album. It is as if the band looked at their one-upbeat-anthem-per-album quota (think the weirdly out of place “Sky Full of Stars” in the otherwise melancholy Ghost Stories, or “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” from Mylo Xyloto) and made a whole album out of them.
To an extent, this is an alarming, if inevitable, transgression in Coldplay’s evolution. The band’s introspective, brooding sound from its early years is entirely gone here. Instead, HFoD is nearly unrelenting joy. With the exception of a few hits, it is not exactly good. But the band has repeatedly claimed that they view this album as a culmination, and that it may be their last. While the latter claim remains to be proven true, the first has some merit. To understand HFoD, we have to look at the body of Coldplay’s work.
At this point, 2001’s Parachutes is so far from Coldplay’s sound that it might as well be a different band. In fact, it is hard to imagine “Yellow” topping many charts today. There is a sense in many of Coldplay’s earlier outings, especially in Parachutes, of being lost. The album’s title is aptly named, and I would like to think the final, uplifting track of A Head Full of Dreams, “Up&Up,” is intentionally titled to contrast that.
A Rush of Blood to the Head was the album that made Coldplay the unrelenting popular force it is now. This is the album that “Clocks” came from. It was broodier and more elaborate. X&Y came next, which I seem to be the only person who actually liked. Coldplay’s third album took their previous tropes to the extreme, attempting to make the music more emotional without ever lyrically grasping anything specific. The orchestration became grander, and apart from “Fix You,” the album is considered the band’s lowest point. And so “Fix You” became a jumping off point for Coldplay’s course correction.
Viva La Vida marked a new era. It bridged the old Coldplay sound with what would become the new. It paired fresh upbeat rhythms with grander subject matter. It was an excellent album, but marked the band’s final true success. After that came 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, a dystopian love story best known for its more electronic sound and Rihanna. It was an album of unchecked gratification, becoming more concerned with its singles than exploring anything interesting. If there has been one recurring thread through all of Coldplay’s work, it has been their astute timing for hit songs, from “Scientist” to “Atlas.” Those hits, however, were mere flavorings, not the substance for a full album.
2014’s Ghost Stories was an anomaly. It returned to a broodier soundscape, but was also unusually imprecise. It is almost certainly a hasty construction in reaction to the conscious uncoupling between lead singer Chris Martin and his former wife Gwyneth Paltrow. It is an album of angst, albeit earned angst, and confusedly wonders what do to.
One year later, the band returned with their answer to Ghost Stories—Head Full of Dreams. It is more flattering to view the two albums as companion pieces; two messes that call and respond to each other. Produced by Norwegian duo Stargate, the album is an amplified, saccharine distillation of what has come before. Three different songs use diamonds as a metaphor.
The first half of the album is stronger. “Hymn for the Weekend” is where the album confidently finds footing. “Adventure of a Lifetime,” a concise anthem of joy, is almost certainly going to be the hit of the album. After that the album slows down, offering bizarre transitions such as a sound byte of President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at a funeral.
It is also an album for friends. Tove Lo joins the group for “Fun.” Gwyneth Paltrow, of all people, adds vocals to “Everglow,” a song that is unmistakably written about her (“And though you might be gone/And the world may not know/Still I see you celestial”). Beyonce is featured in “Hymn for the Weekend,” a bizarre but successful collaboration that sounds exactly how you might expect.
To think this is what Coldplay considers to be their swan song is bittersweet. It certainly is not their magnum opus, but perhaps it was their inevitable conclusion. There are small callbacks that link Dreams to its predecessors (the chords of “Viva La Vida” resurface in “Fun,” for instance). That does not justify the album’s failings, but it does give the strengths more significance.
The album meanders for about fifteen minutes before reaching “Up&Up,” a seven-minute song intended to be the final moment of Coldplay discography. It is the song that Coldplay has done many times before. It hits the “bad things happen but it’s going to be okay” elevation and the “Hey Jude,” if you will. And even by Coldplay standards, it is relatively simple, relying on the chorus “we’re gonna get it, get it together/I know, we’re gonna get it, get it together somehow.” There is no reason this song should work as well as it does. Maybe it exists because the song has had seven albums and fifteen years to justify its existence; or because the sadness it looks back on is far more concrete than usual; or because it promises hope, rather than salvation. In any case, it is an acceptable closing to an uneven album, and a far more uneven career.
Coldplay has time and again insisted that there is beauty in the world. For fifteen years they have grown from telling us about it to shoving it in our faces. Sometimes it has been graceful, and sometimes it has not. But there is a reason that the band has, for their entire duration, latched onto the minds of millions of listeners. People like to listen to hope. While hope alone can rarely hold up an entire album, for a few brief moments it can offer something memorable. Coldplay has always had those moments and they always will. Sometimes, that is enough.