When people call out cultural appropriation, what’s often lost in the ensuing discussion is the notion that appropriation, in itself, isn’t the issue. It’s how people use something that isn’t their own, not the mere fact that they did it, that can cause problems. Coldplay’s new double album, Everyday Life, offers a sumptuous-sounding test for questions of borrowing, voice, and advocacy. Arabic script features in the album art; Arabic lyrics appear on the first song with vocals; “Arabesque” is the name of the first single. Snatches of Persian, Spanish, Yoruba, French, and Zulu dot the songs and the written track list. “Trouble in Town” sees the band’s five Englishmen sampling audio of police harassing black men in Philadelphia in 2013. “Everyone hurts, everyone cries,” Chris Martin sings on the title song, stating the big social message that led the band to avail itself of so many peoples’ stories and sounds.
To say that Coldplay’s members are simply adopting cultures that aren’t their own wouldn’t be quite right (this time). The tradition that Everyday Life most clearly fits into is a pretty white one. When Peter Gabriel moved toward “world music” four decades ago, he not only evangelized sounds that were novel to Western pop. He also set a radio template: majestic, with flourishes meant to read as “exotic,” and lyrics meant to change lives. The 1980 single “Biko,” for example, told the tale of the apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in the custody of South African police. By using Xhosa lyrics, Brazilian drums, and synths that resembled bagpipes, Gabriel made no faithful re-creation of any one style, but rather a palatable hybrid steeped in a vague feel of otherness. Most accounts say that in doing so, he succeeded at tuning swaths of listeners and other artists in to apartheid’s horrors.
Everyday Life evokes the lineage stretching from “Biko” through Toto’s “Africa,” Madonna’s Ray of Light, and Sting’s “Desert Rose”—ever wavering between conscientious and oblivious. It also evokes, well, Coldplay. The album’s impressive centerpiece anthems are lush and tender in a way that’s possible only in an imagined universe where “corny” is not in the dictionary. Martin’s cartoon-coyote croon remains special, but what’s often more notable here is his intricately beautiful piano work. Jonny Buckland’s guitar twinkles so distinctively that it makes you wonder what the next generation of Christmas bulbs will look like. The rhythm trends lithe and meditational. When the band imports influences, they mostly have a perfuming effect, without causing any fundamental changes.
Everyday Life is in some ways a departure, though. Four years after 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams swung for the ultimate arena bash by employing disco and Beyoncé, Everyday Life provides a formal paradox: Can a double-disc album seeking to save the world be described as “understated”? Nearly half the songs end before the three-minute mark, and many seem like mere sketches. The loose feel lets the band experiment. Two songs imitate Christian choral music: “When I Need a Friend” closes disc one with a Catholic Mass, and “BrokEn” tries out hand-clapping gospel. “WOTW / POTP” sounds like it was recorded on a hike. “Guns” has Martin strumming furiously and briefly in an impersonation of Bob Dylan’s protest mode. He sarcastically calls for more guns in the world. He also, for the first time in his catalog, says “fuck.”
His agitation, as you might have guessed, is at the State of the World. Coldplay has typically trained its talents on matters of the heart, but now the focus turns outward, to war and injustice. The pivot has been made in somewhat self-aware fashion. Though Martin’s lyrics remain gauzy and universal, there are moments when Coldplay insists on breaking the listener’s trance. The most bludgeoning of them is during “Trouble in Town,” which interrupts a snow-globe swirl with a real recording of racist policing. As the audio plays, the music executes a gut-churning turn out of Radiohead’s oeuvre. The piano seems to plummet into hell; the rest of the arrangement surges up.
As theater, the song works. As politics, it’s complicated. Here, as well as across Everyday Life, Coldplay realizes it must spotlight voices close to the problems it wants to sing about, rather than simply try to address those problems with Martin’s whimper. (For an example of the issue with the latter approach, see the cringe-making lyric of “Trouble in Town” that mentions “my brother brown.”) Yet it’s inescapable that the band has subsumed others’ mortal struggles for its own catharsis and entertainment. It’s inevitably flirting with white-savior tropes and trauma porn, even as it does the good work of directing attention and pairing it with real-world activism.
What’s dicey is that Martin’s advocacy is not for any particular cause, but rather for an omnidirectional, touchy-feely empathy that reassures the singer and listener before it does anything else. Gun violence in America, bombings in Syria, and environmental crises worldwide are nearly equated, with the catchall solution being more human unity. “I could be you, you could be me,” Martin sings in “Arabesque,” a blunt-force highlight featuring the Nigerian saxophonist Femi Kuti (son of Fela) and the Belgian pop star Stromae. To close that track, Martin cries, “Same fucking blood!” It’s a nice and classically pop message, but it has its dangers. Certainly it can be hijacked for ideas Martin probably opposes, such as color blindness or “All lives matter.” And by swirling together influences with a hands-across-the-world message, Coldplay’s music risks reducing different people to a singular, suffering mass.
It might seem ridiculous to note that a Coldplay album contains no material diagnoses of the causes of the crises it addresses, nor much self-examination about complicity. But there really are punchier ways to do protest music. Gabriel’s “Biko,” for example, zeroed in on one concrete story and, in the process, did educate many listeners. The closest Martin gets to being specific is on the chirpy single “Orphans,” which portrays the victims of the war in Syria as young people who wish they could just go get drunk with their friends. The verses present fable-like characters such as “Rosaleem of the Damascene” who “would have been on the silver screen / but for the missile monsoon.” When she dies, she goes “indigo up in heaven today / with bombs going boom-ba-ba-boom.” Should atrocity sound this twee? The question of how to help end violence will likely be sidelined for an easier argument, the same one that Coldplay has always courted: an argument, merely, about taste.