Review Summary: Coldplay boldly exchange their past pitfalls for an exciting set of new onesEveryone has an everyday
is a nice thought. But more on that later - let’s start where many great things (and more than a few regrettable ones) have started, with my YouTube history. I was (shock horror) on YouTube a few days ago having loaded up (probably) whatever nonsense Ramon had sent my way most recently, at which point my viewing was obstructed by an Ad . Now, my memory has developed a way of turning itself off whenever the slightest hint of a disappointing looking TV series, an uninteresting set of audio plugins or (heaven forbid) a multiple choice survey vomits itself onto my Internet.
This time was different.
A middle aged man was sat on the other side of the screen looking at me. Or that’s sort-of what it felt like; something was weird about his gaze and whole demeanour, something self-conscious and quite intense. I couldn’t tell if he was looking through
the camera with a clear intent directed at an imagined public, looking back at
the camera in an awkward, almost dear-in-headlights effort to play down some unseen/unstated something that was unsettling him about the video he was about to make, painfully aware of his being recorded, or (for an irrational heartbeat) looking at
me personally through the Magic of Cinema and the Internet. This sounds like a lot of unnecessary split ends, but my residual film analysis headspace and intuitive need to gauge the intentions and attitudes of people who make eye contact with me (which I guess is natural to most people) made it a pretty big deal. Normally any one of these impressions would jump out at me far more than the others, but to have all three competing with one another this way was plain weird, and I found it very hard to establish a sense of the man’s intention. Anyway, the man opened his mouth and said a Sentence:
“Hi, I’m Chris [Martin] from (um) Coldplay.”
Now, this hit me for six. As someone who grew up within perpetual earshot of whatever Mr. Martin and his friends considered worthy of radio exposure and who had seen more than his fair share of the band’s publicity photos and music videos, the thought of being directly contacted via laptop broadcast by the man himself was just as disarming as my failing to recognise him. Both at once really threw me off balance. As Chris Martin staggered through a confusingly uncomfortable minute and a half explaining the eco-friendly televised Coldplay concert in Jordan that literally the entire world had already heard about pre-ad (and then asking for a recording of my face and voice in return), I switched gears in my brain to focus less on hearing what he was saying and more on reading what I was seeing. I peered closer. God, he had aged more than a little in the last few years, but there he was: same old Chris Martin. But something was different; this wasn’t the same conquering hero who had seemingly helmed Britain during the Viva la Vida years in all his composure and (from the perspective of a dazzled 11 year old) borderline coolness. This man made me think more of a tortoise out of its shell, not in the sense of vulnerability or helplessness (although not without a slight physical resemblance), but in the sense that he seemed to say
And there was that line again:
“Hi, I’m Chris [Martin] from (um) Coldplay.”
The tone behind these words was almost furtive, reserved in a way that confused me but made it impossible to take them at face-value. Chris [Martin]
are names so widely known that they’ve become tropes unto themselves; it’s all very well to come out with a straightforward (re)introduction sentence, but why was he pronouncing them like they were suddenly pregnant with meaning, like a long-held secret we were all supposed to be in on? The very suggestion of cult appeal in relation to Coldplay (especially
hot-off-the-press, mass-distributed history-in-motion Coldplay) was jarring to me. I was confused, and fascinated. I read through the comments; everything highly rated was to do with great modesty and humility: a fair take. I thought about it - was Chris Martin being modest here? Perhaps, perhaps not. I mulled it over and realised it didn’t actually matter. Perhaps his manner and intention really were inspired by bashfulness, but even if this were the case it had little to do with the most important part of the video: its ambiguity and overall awkwardness. Chris Martin could be as humble as he liked but it had little bearing on the overall impression of what I was seeing: a surely unintentional likeness to a hostage video. At the time, I tried to put it out of my mind, telling myself that this was just a straightforward case of a giant of pop (or however else Mankind: Vintage ’46-’64 would choose to describe a famous middle-aged songsmith) getting paid to talk into/at/through a camera on YouTube, requesting that you please watch him in front of other cameras on YouTube at a later date.
As such, the impression of this video ended up around the posterior of my headspace for some time, until I dipped into the somewhat hotly anticipated new Coldplay record, Everyday Life. At this point, every facet of strangeness and distinctive feature of the broadcast exploded back into my cognition with full force and made a new kind of sense. Apologies for this egregiously long preamble, but it turns out that the video in question was far more analogous to the album and revealing of its significance than I would ever have expected. Let me explain, and let’s start with the title and premise: in the same way that something ‘off’ about the YouTube video stopped it from sitting comfortably in its face-value scope as an advertisement for audience participation, the thought of a Coldplay album called Everyday Life was just too convenient to not raise an eyebrow. This is best exhibited in the album’s original announcement as a nondescript, unglamorous newspaper advert as though it were an estate notice in Victorian England (or whatever). On the surface, it was a pretty neat marketing gimmick, but I immediately felt a certain tension because anyone with the vaguest modicum of self-awareness could tell this kind of prosaic advert from the most prosaic band of the 21st century would always be a finer act of self-parody than smart marketing. When I first saw a picture of the ad and read through the album and song titles, I laughed and assumed it was in the same ballpark of pre-release campaign bait as the hilarious self-deprecating fake tracklist leaked by Tool a few years ago .
The reason for this tension and incredulity is that Coldplay’s relationship with the ordinary and/or everyday is so deeply entrenched at this point that confronting overtly is such an elephant-in-the-room (or, perhaps, tortoise-out-of-shell) premise that I am sceptical that the band’s platform can sustain it (in terms of artistry, not popularity). Coldplay’s entire career has effectively been an attempt to empower the ordinary by exploring it in extraordinary guises; their fantasies are framed as daydreams (Paradise
, their great tales told in the fashion of fireside reminiscences (Violet Hill
, Viva la Vida
), their magic demystified as vestigial doki doki (Magic
). By this token, and having read that Everyday Life would be an ultraconcise double album full of experimentation and meaningful themes, I configured a working hypothesis that Everyday Life would attempt to invert the Coldplay M.O. and embrace the extraordinary by exploring it in ordinary guises. The two singles Arabesque
, particularly the former, seemed to support this hypothesis, offering a bold sense of direction and fresh sound for the band, while both, particularly the latter, held onto the familiarity and charm that define the Coldplay sound. More on these later, but at this point two framing questions can be extracted, both of which are absolutely critical to getting to the bottom of Everyday Life:
1.) Does the album subvert the tropes and expectations associated with Coldplay in an interesting and/or meaningful way?
2.) If ‘yes’ to the above, does such subversion lead to a well-realised and convincing musical work?
The short, mercifully uncomplicated answer to 1.) is a resounding yes
. Everyday Life is the most diverse Coldplay album since Viva la Vida and covers a range of styles with a sense of creative freedom completely distinct from everything else they’ve produced this decade. Arabesque
is a particular triumph, exhibiting a surprisingly natural integration of funk vocabulary into Coldplay’s sound, momentously developed throughout the track, whereas Trouble in Town
’s clamorous climax practically feels like an artillery attack coming from this band, but it is well placed as such and highly memorable. On the other hand, Orphans
is by far one of their best radio-ready pop tracks and suggests a pleasing honing of their craft from other misadventures in this vein earlier this decade. Other songs range from folk to gospel to R&B to full-on choral arrangements, showing off an enlivening ambition.
The band’s lyrical scope is also transformed, largely in the direction socio-political commentary, at times roundabout and at times unexpectedly direct. Trouble In Town
is an unsettling overview of a racist police force, Guns
is a scathing parody (a category that can’t help but seem impossibly edgy coming from Coldplay) with America held squarely in its crosshairs, Orphans
covers the perspective of a survivor of the 2018 Damascus bombing, and Arabesque
is an irresistibly sexy anti-Islamophobia anthem. For perhaps the first time in their career, Coldplay’s work attempts to represent voices that are not those of wealthy middle-aged white men. The focus of the title track, Everyday Life
, is not the superimposition of a one-size-fits-all everyday onto the generic qualities of [white, middle-aged] ‘life’, but rather the broadening of the concept to focus on the breadth of humanity. This not-so-hidden scope of the title track, album title, and album as a whole is to be viewed in the same way as Chris Martin when he says “Coldplay” like it’s a universally comprehensible (and universally comprehensive) riddle: ‘Everyday Life’ actually means ‘Everyday Lives’, which means the application of a relative everyday to a multiplicity of distinct lives, and so, if you will everyone has an everyday
. There we go.
All in all, the album undertakes a series of positive steps: Coldplay are reborn as a group who writes for the sake of the music they love, not for radio hits, and their lyrics are no longer navel-glazing at whatever rainbow and/or heartbreak scenario a bazillion other bands have covered better countless times. To this end, Everyday Life already represents a success of sorts in its superficial outline. But then question 2.) comes into play and things get a whole lot murkier. The scope and palette of the album might have their feet in the right places, but the realisation is something else entirely. The album is held back by two incontrovertible roadblocks: its overall musical cohesion and the relationship between the band’s songwriting platform & style and their newfound pluralistic focus. The first point has to do mainly with the band’s creative spring, which they haven’t quite streamlined into a steady vision. The album’s stylistic disparity sounds more scattergun than unified and its sequencing emphasises this more than it mitigates it. For instance, the decision to follow up Trouble in Town
’s towering tail end with a plodding gospel tribute to Brian Eno in the form of Broken
is bemusing at best, and opening the album’s second half with Guns
, a song short and sharp enough to have a natural role as a mid-sequence showstopper, is also baffling. The second disc is otherwise far more cohesively sequenced, so much so that the run of Eko
through Old Friends
flows almost as a suite. Overall, this largely disparate sense isn’t without a certain intrigue, but it doesn’t carry a fifty-minute runtime. The album’s bipartite structure feels a little confused in the scheme of this; the idea of Everyday Life as an album split into two halves is all very well conceptually, but it crumbles somewhat given that the sequencing within each half (let alone the album as a whole) is this clumsy.
Special mention must also go to the following: Chris Martin swears on this album and it sounds hilarious
, stripping the force from his delivery but worth it for pure comic relief. From what I gather, Will Champion had acted as a mediating influence on explicit lyrics for past albums but decided to rein it in on this one. A shame. There’s also the inevitable fact that some of the band’s musical explorations are less successful than others. Martin is admirable in taking his voice out of its comfort zone, but this doesn’t make Cry Cry Cry
anything less than the most unintentionally hilariously white R&B song you’ll hear this year, or When I Need A Friend
any less awkward in how outgunned and strained he sounds in a professional choral lineup. These blips are forgivable in the scheme of the album’s ambition, however; they’re endearingly imperfect and bring certain proverbs involving eggs and omelettes to mind.
If Everyday Life’s musical incohesion can be played down as good intentions on awry, Coldplay’s management of a politicised lyrics is a little harder to mitigate. Chris Martin has never been the strongest lyricist but his lines have always been sufficient to carry off the usual vapid bullshit that is part and parcel of pre-2019 Coldplay. Here, however, the heavy-handed corniness of his writing becomes more problematic: the tragedy of this album is that Coldplay have very little to add to any of the content they cover beyond giving it a larger, more generic voice. Take the 1975’s recently released umpteenth self-titled track, narrated by Greta Thunberg. I’ll be the last to criticise focusing on climate awareness and am pleased that the band gave Thunberg a platform, but this doesn’t change the overall impression that a popular band writing five minutes of elevator music to support a message predisposed to resonate with their fanbase cannot be viewed without a healthy pinch of virtue signalling cynicism. Remember how in the video Chris Martin’s humility and potential other good virtues were a moot point compared its overwhelming sense of discomfort? Same story here: it’s all very well to state the value of love and inclusivity, but framing them in lines as tired as “Everyone hurts, everyone cries/everyone sees the colour in each other’s eyes/everyone loves, everybody gets their hearts ripped out” brings them down to the level of interchangeable drivel and does nobody any favours. In this good year of our Lord 2019, turning “we share the same blood” into a chorus mantra does not play out as the radical statement the band seem to think it is. This is not helped by the placement of songs as lyrically cutting as Guns
or as personal and specific as Orphans
within a stone’s throw of such commonfare sentimentalism as Old Friends
. The album’s stakes get lost in a muddle of registers and its overall scope so low that I laughed out loud the first time I heard the line “I tried my best to be just like/the other boys in school” open up Champion of the World
like the stuff of parody gold, only to discover that the song was written as a tribute for Frightened Rabbit’s late frontman Scott Hutchison. This is not a reaction that such a song should come close to facilitating, but in fairness its stirring chorus is far and away Martin’s finest hour here and makes up for a clunky start. However, that the most moving, convincing part of this whole album is the recording of an abusive cop played during Trouble in Town
’s bridge is an apt reflection of most of what we hear from his end. If Everything Life is the new standard bearer of woke normalisation, I don’t know if it’s a shame or relief that most of its content lands so forgettably.
And there we have it. The “Chris [Martin] from (um) Coldplay” sense of an album that has more going on than anyone would have expected
effect carries over Everyday Life with both a sense of depth and craft, but also the hackneyed sense of a work that overstates its scope and intrigue without doing its intentions full justice. I’ve given it the criticism I believe it (thoroughly) deserves, but it’s important to emphasise that the album is a huge step forwards for the band in its way and is by far the most meaningful or well-realised achievement they’ve come up with this decade. However, their transformation from festival fodder and rainy day central heating-supplements is not nearly radical enough to lend a convincing sense of resolve to their critique of systemic violence or social division. Coldplay have, however, earned a new sense of intrigue and ambition; let’s see where they take it from here.