A single track separates Coldplay’s second-ever Billboard No. 1 hit and the sprawling 10-minute odyssey that closes out their latest album, Music of the Spheres. ‘My Universe’, the band’s chart-topping collaboration with K-pop superstars BTS, is most emblematic of the record’s intergalactic pop ambitions, serving up a burst of euphoric infatuation while adhering to the most generic template imaginable. This kind of optimism could easily come off as grating, but few acts are more capable of selling it than these two, and there are enough surprises in the production to keep it from sounding entirely flavourless. ‘Coloratura’, meanwhile, shoots for the kind of artful grandiosity Coldplay have been known to intermittently excel at, but so self-consciously pushes it to the limit – Chris Martin’s dramatic piano, Jonny Buckland’s Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo, Paris Strother’s rousing synth passages – that it falls short of being engaging or transcendent all the way through. It offers a curious last-minute glimpse of the kind of album Music of the Spheres could have aspired to be, a strangely perfect destination for a record with lots of places to be but not much to say.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Inspired by the Cantina Band from the original Star Wars, the album centers on the broad question of “what musicians are like across the universe.” Its final line – “Together, that’s how we’ll make it through” – sums up the message this fictional band goes around spreading from planet to planet, and it doesn’t get more universal than that. Musically, Coldplay make sure everything in this journey flows together seamlessly with interludes like ‘Infinity Sign’, the bridge between ‘My Universe’ and ‘Coloratura’ that features production from both Swedish hitmaker Max Martin (who co-produced the entire album) and electronic producer and former collaborator Jon Hopkins, whose ambient sonics are undercut by a bunch of distant “Olé olé olé” chants. And yet the most interesting thing about the track might be that, like the rest of the interludes here, its actual title is presented in the form of an emoji.
More intriguing still is the fact that, a few days after its release, ‘Infinity Sign’ has racked up just over a million Spotify streams, sitting between songs with over ten and a hundred million streams. Right before ‘My Universe’ is an interlude with just a few thousand, less than the most pretentiously obscure song you’ll point to after poking fun at Martin’s lyrics, which can range from notoriously asinine to absurdly cheesy. (Case in point: “I’m like a broken record and I’m not playing right” is followed by “Drocer nekorb a ekil mi,” which, yes, is just the first line backwards.) But this is obviously an album primed for commercial success, and with (Max) Martin at the helm, the band remains reliably committed to that goal even if it leaves the whole concept feeling irrelevant and disjointed.
To stick to the intergalactic theme, though, Music of the Spheres’ final stretch of songs sound light-years away from lead single and de facto opener ‘Higher Power’, another perfectly serviceable pop song that clearly emulates the Weeknd’s foray into blissful ’80s synth-pop while making sure to wipe out any sense of danger from the equation. Just like ‘Blinding Lights’ works because of Abel Tesfaye’s enigmatic persona, ‘Higher Power’ works thanks to Coldplay’s transparent, infectious positivity. There’s no doubt the same spirit permeates the rest of the album, but there’s so much filler in the space between its biggest songs that it ends up feeling oddly thin for its scope. ‘Humankind’ borrows from the Springsteen songbook in an attempt to reach those soaring heights but lacks any real substance; the vague political commentary and heavy riff driving ‘People of the Pride’ make it sound like a leftover from Muse’s Drones.
At times, Coldplay sound less like themselves even when they’re relying on formulas that have worked wonders for them in the past. ‘Let Somebody Go’, a heartfelt duet with Selena Gomez, captures none of the magic held in the best moments of 2014’s Ghost Stories. You wouldn’t expect Music of the Spheres to be as grounded and modest as an album titled Everyday Life – the band’s previous full-length effort and their best in years – but you’d imagine taking things to a cosmic scale would at least come with exploring a few different territories rather than finding the safest way to travel from point A to B – that is, from one stadium-sized anthem to another. It doesn’t have to be radically original: it could be as simple as taking an inherently corny idea, like the pitched-up vocals on ‘Biutyful’ (not a typo), and making it the reason the song clicks where others don’t. That the album’s concept is really an inconsequential one probably doesn’t elude anyone, not even the band themselves, but somewhere along the way they seem to lose touch of a paradigm unique to the Coldplay universe: for there to be light, you have to let a very human kind of warmth seep in.