Coldplay has a reputation for a sort of vanilla earnestness that isn’t entirely undeserved: The albums that made the British quartet huge in the early part of its career—from 2000’s Parachutes through 2008’s Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends—were generally filled with easy-to-swallow, expertly crafted pop songs. The lighter sides of U2 and Radiohead had cleared the path, and Coldplay chose the smoothest road that had been paved in front of it. That’s not a knock: The path of least resistance served it well, and the world got some truly fantastic, frequently melancholy songs, from “Yellow” to “Clocks” to the gloopy but undeniable “Fix You.” And Coldplay sold kajillions of records—okay, somewhere around 50 million—in that first decade. It’s hard to argue with those kind of numbers; the people have spoken.
But in the second half of its career, Coldplay has actually deviated from its winning formula quite a bit, with mixed results. Songs that permeated the culture were fewer and further between, even as the Coldplay brand reached a peak. (Some of that could have been due to singer Chris Martin’s marriage to, and then “conscious uncoupling” from, Gwyneth Paltrow; their conjoined celebrity status was greater than the sum of its parts.) The band’s last two albums seemed to push against each other, one being weepy and introspective (2014’s Ghost Stories) and one an attempt to return to Technicolor (2015’s A Head Full Of Dreams). Martin and company played with electronic sounds, Middle Eastern vibes, and guest stars, sometimes acting like they were thirsty for another big hit, sometimes navel gazing.
So it was anyone’s guess where album no. 8 would go: The rumor mill characterized the new Everyday Life as “experimental,” which in this limited context is about as useful a descriptor as “snackalicious.” Here’s what it is, though: quietly ambitious, occasionally ham-handed, decidedly political, dopily mystical, surprisingly pointed, and mostly pretty good. And, maybe most importantly, it is unexpected, in good and bad ways. Maybe those paying super close attention to Coldplay would have anticipated a straight-up gospel song featuring little more than Chris Martin’s voice and a church choir (“Broken”) or an introductory classical piece (“Sunrise”) that’s more mood-setting instrumental—with no members of Coldplay on it, it seems—than pop song.
And that’s really the story of Everyday Life, which bounces wildly from idea to idea, rejecting the overt themes that Coldplay has embraced in the past. So one minute there’s the rafter-reaching “Church,” which rides a danceable, sing-along groove, and the next it’s “Trouble In Town,” in which Martin makes a slightly ham-handed attempt at addressing racial injustice. “Trouble in town / Because they hung my Brother Brown,” he sings, before the song is overtaken by what sounds like real audio from a scary traffic stop by a racist cop. Bully for Coldplay for using its platform to stand firm on the right side of history, but it doesn’t exactly succeed as pop music.
The weepy ballad “Daddy” tests the notion that you can be simultaneously moved by a piece of art and slightly embarrassed for the person who created it: It’s just piano and Martin’s voice, with plaintively direct lyrics like, “Daddy are you out there? / Daddy, why’d you run away?” “Wonder Of The World / Power Of The People” is similarly spare, with Martin and an acoustic seemingly recorded on location somewhere, with birds chirping in the background. And just when it seems everyone else in Coldplay has disappeared completely, along comes the fully loaded “Arabesque,” with its Middle Eastern chug and a big guest spot for Femi Kuti’s saxophone. It’s whiplash-inducing, but mostly in a good way.
“Guns” is a low point, a bitterly sarcastic number that reads like a Pearl Jam B-side and won’t change anyone’s mind about its subject, even as Martin drops F-bombs to make his point. The title track is a little less stringent (and therefore much more Coldplay-esque), a “hallelujah”-filled plea for commonality that sounds lovely but, again, probably won’t cause anybody’s Facebook uncle to reconsider what he chooses to share. But it’d be silly to fault Coldplay for stretching its own definition. Everyday Life is, like everyday life, kind of a mess—a jumble of ideas and aspirations and successes and failures. In that way, it might be the most human thing Coldplay has ever done.