Coldplay Set out to Save the World on ‘Everyday Life’
Coldplay is a band that has always fashioned its music from a particularly winsome strain of naiveté. Up-front immediacy and simplicity of sentiment make their way into gentle piano ballads and sprawling, stadium sing-alongs. Bands of such stature have a tendency to inflate over time, and it takes a certain sensitivity to keep things in check and stay relevant and engaging. While the group’s last release, “A Head Full of Dreams,” was an overwhelmingly celebratory affair, the followup, “Everyday Life,” adjusts its approach for a strikingly different moment. Largely a reaction to the fierce nationalism that has swept the world in recent years, the new double album takes a global perspective, drawing inspiration from various regions of the world. The first half, “Sunrise,” surveys the issues of the present day, while the second component, “Sunrise” explores possible solutions. Although held back by lazy poetry and hackneyed songwriting, it’s a cohesive, ambitious artistic statement that finds the band exploring some new sonic territory, and delivering an inspirational message.
The first half begins with a titular instrumental overture, with gorgeous, evocative strings that prepare the listener for the lofty ambitions of the project at large. The first full song, “Church,” is a bit of a throwback to the ‘90s in its musical stylings, in the same spirit of songs like James’ “Sometimes,” and the associated Manchester scene. It’s in the breakbeat-informed percussion, the general freewheeling sound, and most of all the unabashedly Kumbaya sentiment. A highlight is singer Norah Shaqur’s low register Arabic vocals near the end, the first instance of a theme revisited later. “Trouble in Town” is softer, melancholy, and poignant, plodding along with plaintive chords and fills that keep it engaging. Martin’s syrupy double-tracked vocals in the bridge sound superb, a perfect instance of the unassuming splendor that has always been central to Coldplay’s appeal. Midway, audio of a pugnacious policeman antagonizing a driver for no ostensible reason is overlain on piano, with sweeping strings accentuating the dramatic moments, showing an unprecedented cinematic bent. By choosing a rather arbitrary dispute to sample, the band successfully zero in on the futility of so many conflicts, particularly those involving undue hostility to immigrants. The song draws to an end with children chanting the Zulu word “jikelele,” which translates roughly to “global.”
While a song named “Church” might have been a hint, it strikes as a surprise when the band burst into full gospel upon “BrokEn.” The song is basically as gospel as it gets, except that Martin and his backup singers sound decidedly English. It’s at once slightly hokey and altogether charming, with “Mmm-hmmm” vibrato vocals, lovely harmonies and a minimal kick-clap pulse. The capital “E” in the song is intended as a phonetic nod to the legendary Brian Eno, who has produced a fair share of the Coldplay’s older music. As indicated in the official lyrics release, the band dedicated this song to Eno, which, while sweet, is confoundingly arbitrary. Why this particular song, and why gospel? Lyrics like “Oh Lord / Come shine your light on me” make it all seem bizarrely cultish. Like many of Martin’s gestures, it seems perfectly well intentioned, but not very carefully thought through.
“Daddy” recalls songs like “Trouble” from Coldplay’s earliest days, with its twee piano lines and dreamy posturing. It’s a format the band is suited for, and a welcome return after the inflated pop bombast that has characterized much of more recent efforts. On the other hand, lyrics like “Daddy are you out there,” and “You’re so far away / That’s okay” exemplify why Coldplay have never exactly been critics’ darlings, as this is the most profound the lyrics ever get. At least the band never put on any fronts.“WOTW / POTP,” which stands for “Wonder of the World / Power of the People,” sounds like it was recorded as a voice memo, and has presumably been included because of sentimental value. There is a certain charm to its slipshod quality, with the mumbled vocals and uncorrected mess-ups imparting a special candour, a bit like some of Pete Doherty’s acoustic numbers.
Things take a festive turn on “Arabesque,” a catchy number with propulsively strummed guitar, an infectious main riff, and celebratory brass. If “BrokEn” seemed a bit misguided, this song is just baffling, as there isn’t anything detectably “Arabesque” in the sound. There are Afrobeat stylings, courtesy of Femi Kuti, and a verse from Martin in French, but nothing Arabic. The highlight of the song is when Kuti takes the spotlight and lets loose. Cosmopolitan harmony is the core sentiment, encapsulated in the refrain, “we share the same blood,” and in a sample of Kuti asserting, “Music is the weapon of the future.” Highlights occur when Kuti takes the spotlight and lets loose, and when the song builds to its epic, triumphant climax. “When I Need a Friend” brings us back to the church, but this time it’s classical stylings rather than gospel. United in soothing rich harmony, Martin and a full choir sing, “Love reign o’er me / When I need a friend.”
The first taste of the album’s second half, “Sunset,” is strikingly more acerbic. “Guns” is in the tradition of folk protest music, short and pointed, with delightfully intricate acoustic guitar work. Martin alludes to Afghan author Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which details the debacles in Afghanistan over the last thirty years, and decries the ignorance of the world at large regarding global politics. Martin quite obviously directs his attention toward the USA when he jeers, “It’s the opinion of this board that / We need more guns.” For good measure, he continues, “Everyone’s goin’ fucking crazy / Maybe I’m crazy, too.” “Orphans” is a well-chosen co-lead single, full of the U2-esque bombast that typified Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” era, with a spirited bassline, a mobilizing sing-along, stadium-ready bleating, and an overall feeling of grandeur. Martin tells a story of a girl named Rosaleem and her father, who have fled from the Syrian Civil War, and are aided in the refugee crisis by archangels. Martin’s eleven year-old son Moses joins him singing, “Boom boom kah,” which takes on a new meaning when Martin later adds, “bombs going boom-ba-ba-boom.” Anyone who has seen the appalling before and after pictures of Damascus has to credit Martin for addressing this issue. Again however, he could have thought the lyrics through a bit more carefully. The grand refrain of “I want to know when I can go / Back and get drunk with my friends” is not all that convincing when one considers that Rosaleem is a girl and Syria is an Islamic country.
“Èkó,” named after a city in Nigeria, is a light, gentle number, about as placid as can be. Martin croons, “In Africa / The rivers are perfectly deep / And beautifully wide,” as the guitar lines conjure ripples in a river. Somewhat childishly outlandish sentiment and singsong have been at the heart of Coldplay since the days of “Yellow,” and its hard not to have a soft spot for this type of open-ended, wide-eyed optimism. “Cry Cry Cry” is an intriguing novelty, fitting pitched-up vocals from Jacob Collier, in tandem with Martin’s untreated voice, to that quintessential ‘60s slow dance chord progression. Martin refers to “The Luminous Things,” a collection of three hundred poems from throughout time, compiled by Polish-American writer Czeslaw Milosz. “Everyday Life” follows very much in the tradition of the book, with its songs about relatable sentiments culled from throughout the world serving to send a message of universal empathy. The song reaches a peak upon Martin’s slightly strained vocals in the bridge. It’s his unaffected emotion and forthrightness that makes Martin shine as a singer. In a way, it’s the same attribute that induces cringes lyrically and warms hearts sonically. “Old Friends” is a less successful example of this. A stripped-down tune with intricate guitar and a sweet sentiment, it’s held back only by the insufferable triteness of its lyrics.
The Arabic themes of the album reach their peak on “بنی آدم,” which translates to “Children of Adam.” The song is inspired by a Persian poet Saadi Shirazi’s work of the same name, which again tackles the idea of focusing on our shared humanity, rather than our differences. The first half is an instrumental work of evocative piano, and after a midway pause, a beat takes root, and a succession of spoken word samples impart messages of the underlying idea in Arabic, English, and Nigerian, with the last bit lifted from Nigerian composer Harcourt Whyte’s song “Otuto Nke Chukwu N’ojija Aha Ya.” The only drawback to a work like this is that the concept far overshadows the end, as both the music and words are quite lackluster. At any rate, Martin remains inspired, as indicated by the ambitiously titled “Champion of the World,” a song dedicated to singer Scott Hutchison of Scottish indie outfit Frightened Rabbit, who took his life last year. In the interlude, Martin riffs off Hutchinson’s song ““Los Angeles, Be Kind.” He sounds as triumphant as the song title suggests, and lines like “Now I’m riding on my rocketship / And I’m champion of the world” neatly sum up the pie-in-the-sky mentality at the heart of it all. Finally, the short title track arrives, having already presented its message emphatically in the preceding set of songs. It’s a final affirmation of optimism in the form of a slow piano ballad, a reminder that “everyone hurts, everyone cries.”
“Everyday Life” is an album concerned first and foremost with a message, one that is universally relatable and especially relevant in today’s world. Such lofty ambitions, however, set high expectations, and this is where the tepid lyricism becomes a limiting factor. Coldplay has always thrived on broad accessibility, but it could hardly hurt to be a bit more creative. Abounding lazy platitudes undersell the sentiments that they aim to promote. Fortunately, Chris Martin and crew are seasoned songsmiths who string together tunes that usually salvage the songs. There are some exciting new sonic directions on the record, particularly the jazz and world music explorations of “Arabesque” and the stripped-down folk acoustics of songs like “Guns.” At this point in their career, Coldplay have to seek new outlets to keep things interesting, and these efforts result in some of their most memorable music. Meanwhile, there’s the familiar immediacy, the memorable ditties, and the magnetic voice that have always struck a chord. Above all, it’s an album that has to be appreciated for its straightforward, admirable optimism and unstilted compassion.
“Everyday Life” is available Nov. 22 on Apple Music.