How Coldplay Found a New Way to Be Boring

On A Head Full of Dreams, they’ve lost even the ability to excite with gentleness.

Steve Marcus / Reuters

There’s a lot to say about Coldplay’s new album. The guest list alone—Beyoncé, Stargate, Gwyneth Paltrow, Noel Gallagher, Khatia Buniatishvili, Barack Obama—is material for fan-fiction about dinner parties. The songs are about Chris Martin moving on from the spectacularly public “conscious uncoupling” between him and Paltrow with a sense of enlightened glee. Included are the sound of the famously soft-rock band playing disco and some “Bitch Better Have My Money”-style beats. The album was released a day after the announcement that the band would play the Super Bowl halftime show, and in a surprising move with industry-wide implications, it was put on Apple’s streaming music service a week before it hits Spotify. It’s supposedly Coldplay’s last album.

Fun talking points. Much more fun than the music itself. A Head Full of Dreams presents itself as shiny and hyperactive, adventuresome and openhearted, radically optimistic. What it really is, though, is a seminar in the many-splendored ways that music can be boring.

A common reaction here would be to say “it’s Coldplay, of course it’s boring.” The truth is that the best Coldplay is quite the opposite, and it’s worth thinking a bit about the different ways of defining musical boredom. One of those ways is through genre. Coldplay began their career playing rock that sounds like Oasis, which is to say it sounds like a zillion guitar bands before and since. Chris Martin has the kind of voice that reminds one of visiting CVS for Sudafed, and it’s usually delivering inspirational slogans so clumsy that even Upworthy wouldn’t bother with them. The band’s added more diverse sounds over the years—laser-show synthesizers, pompous classical touches—but its essential nature precludes the possibility of edge or aggression. It is soft, always. For people who favor noisier rock or electronica or rap or any sort of music in which challenging the listener matters, this is boring.

But as pure songcraft, Coldplay’s most popular material can be, and probably is, taught in musicology courses about inducing excitement through sound. Go back to “Clocks.” Its steady beat, insistent piano riff, and pleasingly repetitious vocal line jacket the listener snuggly, securing them within the song as surely as the lap bar does on a roller coaster. And then the rollercoaster takes you places. You’re pitched up for the chorus and pitched back down for the verse; sonic density also peaks—hear those strings in the glorious “nothing else compares” part?—and then dissipates. The highs feel very high, but there’s never any sense of careening away, never a possibility of disorientation. To extend the amusement-ride comparison, think Disneyland attractions: enough action to raise everyone’s pulse a bit, but not enough to truly frighten the kids or grandparents.

It basically works this way in all successful Coldplay songs. They strap you in and then scoot you along; uplift is both an emotional idea Martin’s lyrics obsess over and a metaphorical concept to describe what the choruses do. As for the melodies, I liked what my colleague Derek Thompson wrote in 2011 about “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”: “They draw clear lines. They take a shape. They pose a question, and they give a satisfying answer. They open the chord and resolve the fleeting dissonance, and it’s all done deftly enough that the hook comes into focus just as it’s ending.”

Okay. So the band creates excitement via a formula, and formulas are, by another definition of the term, boring. Even Coldplay seems to be a little bored, seven albums into their career. On A Head Full of Dreams you can hear the band trying out some other formula, or focusing on certain parts of the old recipe to the exclusion of others. But something’s not working. It’s not physiologically exciting anymore. You can admire many of the creative choices, but you quickly forget what you just listened to. Which might be the truest form of boring.

The opening title song fades in with distantly chiming bells, a synthetic dance pulse, a drum set shuffling complicatedly, and a guitar repeatedly drawing a high, short melody. It’s a cool, unusual arrangement. A lot of this stuff drops out for a bit before the two-minute mark, and you retroactively realized you just experienced the chorus, when Martin sang the title of the song twice to the tune of that guitar line you’d heard earlier. The second verse doesn’t end in a chorus, but rather launches into an Arcade Fire-style “ohh-ohhhh” refrain.

This experimentation with structure is, theoretically, worth applauding. But when artists screw with pop templates, it’s often to communicate something unconventional, to get a different emotional perspective, or to draw the listener along in some new way. Martin, though, is as banal and treacly as ever. As the title indicates, he’s telling-not-showing about how great it is to dream about the future. Most importantly, the song tires the ear. Pop songwriters talk about the “victim-to-victory” trope, where a downtrodden verse gives way to a transcendent chorus. Coldplay’s been great at that. But this song is all victory, all the time: essentially two plateaus with a valley in the middle. The main theme is catchy, but it’s hard to remember where it is in the song.

Because of that hook, “A Head Full of Dreams” is actually one of the better things on the album. Another semi-success is “Adventure of a Lifetime,” the Studio 54-indebted single whose cleverly interlocking elements make the song feel sturdy even as it denies a full singalong payoff. I have mixed feeling about the track with Beyoncé, “Hymn for the Weekend,” a transparent attempt at adding some spiritualistic pretense to YOLO-type pop songs. “Feeling drunk and high / so high / so high” is the ever-climbing chorus, and—despite its ridiculousness—it’s a good one. But the instrumentation, which sounds like a klezmer band attempting EDM, just plods. The effect is akin to being drowned in confetti.

Not all of the songs are departures, but even the most Coldplay-y ones are unusually inert. “Amazing Day” is like “Earth Angel” without any sense of space or scale; even for many people who’ve acquired a tolerance for Martin’s goopy delivery, the song will be too thick with sentiment to sit through more than once. The piano ballad “Everglow” has a lovely melody, but, again, the chorus doesn’t deliver the contrasting whoosh that you come to Coldplay for. What the band’s essentially delivered is an album about being high all the time, which might explain why it has almost no distinguishable heights.