Over the last two decades, a once solidified divide between rock purists and pop fanatics has begun to dissolve. The die-hard supporters of “indie rock,” who once caped for the genre as some sort of purist alternative to pop music, have witnessed their subculture become similarly commercialized. And the latent — or sometimes blatant — misogyny that fueled some of the most dismissive attitudes toward pop in the past has been laid bare by a new generation of critics who are themselves women, queer, or just better educated than music writers past.
But, most interesting of all, are bands like Coldplay, who fought against the binary from the very start. Yes, Parachutes and Rush Of Blood To The Head sound a bit more rock than their later albums like Viva La Vida or Head Full Of Dreams — which literally has a Beyonce feature — but even a cursory listen of their earliest hit, “Yellow,” reveals a pop sensibility that was foundational from the very beginning.
If the impetus to slowly move toward pop has been gradually building, on Music Of The Spheres, the band has picked up the pace. This record cannot be mistaken for anything that would slot into the categories of “indie,” or “rock” and even “Britpop” seems a bit of a stretch. This is dramatically a pop album, with features from massive pop artists like BTS and Selena Gomez positioned front and center. One of the biggest moves an artist can make when they want to be seen as full-on pop is work with the genre’s celebrated architect, Max Martin, and the producer is credited on every single track of this new ninth record from the British band. The band’s aesthetic has shifted a fair amount, too — in place of moody videos Coldplay has adopted an aliens-in-space and emojis approach, one that, it should be noted, is perfectly suitable for young children.
Kicking off their new album with their ambiguously spiritual lead single, “Higher Power,” the full pivot was immediately clear — as was the presence of Martin, who ensured this song will softly enter your brain and remain there for a full 24 hours. Of course, their collaboration with BTS, “My Universe,” immediately shot up to No. 1 — as most BTS songs do — but managed to feel organically like a Coldplay song, and not just an attempt to chart. What might frustrate or delight fans the most, in fact, is how expertly Coldplay have shifted to maximalist pop. In some ways, Music Of The Spheres feels like the album Chris Martin has been trying to make since Mylo Xyloto, or at least since the flop of Ghost Stories back in 2014. Making a straight-ahead pop record, instead of aiming for alt-pop or attempting to straddle the line between rock and pop seems to have unleashed a freedom for Martin and co. that’s been missing for the last few records.
Instrumental interludes are sprinkled throughout the record, mostly distinguished by their emoji titles, but the longest of these, “♾️,” is a collaboration with Jon Hopkins that retains some of the nimble, euphoric impulses that have earned the English producer loads of critical acclaim. Another collaboration, “❤️,” features both multi-harmony wunderkind Jacob Collier and We Are KING, a pair of Minneapolis-born sisters whose independent R&B is also buoyed by their massive harmonies. By the time Martin’s voice is doubled and tripled in with these collaborators, the song sounds more like a full choir doing an arrangement of a pop song than an original version. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a notable departure from the tighter, more focused tracks on the project.
In that realm, “Humankind” and the Gomez collab, “Let Somebody Go” hew closer to the record’s overall theme — also echoed in “❤️” — that our connections hold us together more than our differences tear us apart. Of course, this isn’t a new subject, any more than bringing in Max Martin to massage your songs into perfect pop is a new strategy, but, both remain common for a reason — no matter how many times they’re employed, they still work. As the human race begins to seriously contemplate life on another planet, perhaps it’s more important than ever to remember what qualities we want to bring with us into outer space. For a record that’s mesmerized with science-fiction plotlines, the songs stick with simple subject matter and don’t venture into any Wellsian plotlines or three-part epics that unfold against the cosmos.
There’s a bit of a misstep on “Biutyful,” where Martin sings a duet with an “alien,” but every album is allowed at least one clunker, especially when dealing with the slippery subject of sci-fi. Music Of The Spheres might be the ninth album from a band that has been in the game for 25 years, but in plenty of ways it feels like a new beginning. Chris Martin keeps hinting that the band might be wrapping up their run, but if they’re this good at being pop stars, why stop now? There’s a whole universe out there.
Coldplay is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.