Space exploration seems an odd theme for Coldplay, a band who write agreeable stadium rock, and whose members are, as internationally successful musicians go, pretty down to earth. But it’s beyond this planet that one of the world’s most commercially successful acts have looked for their mismatched ninth album, Music of the Spheres.
Or at least that’s what they’re trying to get at – with song titles such as “My Universe” and “Higher Power”. Even worse, some of these tracks are depicted by not-quite emojis – symbols of stars, planets, even an infinity sign; this music, Coldplay suggest, is so “out of this world” as to be indescribable by the Roman alphabet. The theme lends itself well to cliché: “I loved you to the moon and back” sings Chris Martin on “Let Somebody Go”, a ballad featuring Selena Gomez that floats along perfectly amicably.
The quality shifts dramatically on the next track, “Human Heart” (depicted by an outline of a heart symbol), a nauseatingly over-layered, over-produced track that features vocals from LA-based R&B duo We Are King (sisters Paris and Amber Strother) and UK musician Jacob Collier. It attempts to explore toxic masculinity (“Boys don’t cry/Boys keep it all inside”) but ultimately manages only a feeble expression of interiority: “Only got a human heart.” Lead single “Higher Power”, the most Coldplay-like song on this record, was debuted by being beamed into the International Space Station; we can only hope no more of this music will be used as any kind of representation of humankind.
Anyway, this thematic sensibility is just a distraction. Coldplay remain preoccupied with their home planet – and how people here are choosing to listen to their songs. Because Music of the Spheres, disjointed as it is, has been conceived with streaming in mind. A 12-track album of stadium rock isn’t going to perform well on Spotify; in the current climate, each track must stand its ground as its own entity. And Coldplay haven’t gone about this subtly. The rocking bass introduction to “People of the Pride” is miles away from the twee manipulated vocals of “Biutyful” – the spelling of which tells you everything you need to know about the song. These songs have clashing sensibilities, and feel abrasive next to each other. Only the ten-minute-long “Coloratura”, slotted in at the very end of the album, suggests its writers had any kind of interest in making music for human ears, not computers. But even this opportunity is squandered, and the song is overwrought, with piano flourishes and twinkling orchestral motifs at every turn.
The sad thing is that if this streaming-first operation seems obvious and embarrassingly superficial, it’s already worked: “My Universe”, the upbeat anthem that features K-pop supergroup BTS, was the most-streamed song in the world in the week following its release, with 95.4 million streams and 142,400 downloads sold. The collaboration may have seemed unlikely to your average British Coldplay listener, but the combined force of the two sets of fans is unstoppable, and Coldplay knew exactly what they were doing: business.
Besides, such a gimmick doesn’t seem appropriate for a band whose heart is very much concerned with what’s happening on Earth. On Thursday 14 October Coldplay announced a 2022 world tour encompassing nine countries across 30 dates and six months. Crucially, the tour will aim to cut CO2 emissions by 50 per cent compared to previous tours. In consultation with climate experts, the band have devised a system that will enable the tour to be partly powered by a dancefloor that generates energy when fans jump up and down. They will also plant a tree for every ticket sold. The announcement, which follows Martin’s declaration in 2019 that the band would pause touring until a more environmentally conscious solution was found, is a hugely inspiring step in the right direction for a band of Coldplay’s size. It also makes one thing clear: it’s here, down on Earth, where Coldplay can make real change.