Sooner or later, every goliath of modern stadium rock hears the siren call of the discotheque. U2, Radiohead, Arcade Fire — all have striven to goose their sincerity with syncopation, to inject more fun, more funk, into their big, regal, high-minded songs. Now it’s Coldplay‘s turn. On the band’s seventh album, A Head Full of Dreams, Chris Martin and company nervously creep onto the dancefloor, like boys at a junior high school prom, determined to unleash the boogie, white man’s overbite be damned. Thus “Adventure of a Lifetime,” the first single, which puts a classic disco beat — percolating bassline, hissing high-hat, hand claps — behind Martin’s tremulous falsetto. The song’s sentiments are pure Coldplay. “We are diamonds taking shape,” sings Martin. “Everything you want’s a dream away.”
Martin told an interviewer that the group wanted to make an uplifting album that would prompt fans to “shuffle [their] feet.” Listeners familiar with Coldplay might ask if the band has ever made a record that doesn’t aim to uplift. For nearly a decade and a half, Coldplay has been the global standard-bearer of Inspiration Rock. Even on Ghost Stories, the moderately downcast 2014 album released in the wake of Martin’s marital breakup, the music chimed grandly, and the lyrics tilted in the direction of bombast and bromides. In Coldplay’s world, we all have wings, and the band provides the wind.
As for feet-shuffling, that’s where collaborators come in. On A Head Full of Dreams, the band teams with Stargate, aka Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, who share production duties with longtime Coldplay comrade Rik Simpson on all but one song. There are other boldface names in the credits: Tove Lo, Noel Gallagher and, well, President Barack Obama, whose sampled rendition of “Amazing Grace” can be heard amid a wash of piano and ;synths on the vague songlet called “Kaleidoscope.” Then there’s the Queen of America, Beyoncé, who provides backing vocals on three songs, including the album’s grooviest, “Hymn for the Weekend,” which sounds an awful lot like Coldplay’s answer to “Drunk in Love.” (“I’m feeling drunk and high/So high, so high/Then we’ll shoot across the sky,” exults Martin.)
The decision to work with Stargate was a shrewd one. The Norwegian songwriting-production duo is among the world’s best at blending the flavors of R&B and bubble-gum pop. More than any previous Coldplay release, A Head Full of Dreams sounds like a pop record; the band has never been catchier. That’s especially true when the tempos are brisk, in tracks like “Hymn for the Weekend” and “Birds,” whose ringing guitars and thumping bass might please fans of The Cure. Of course, the songs are still big, with the peeling guitars and crescendos in which Coldplay always has specialized. But Stargate finds new ways to ornament the anthems with hooks, beats, samples and effects. Martin and Coldplay haven’t exactly reined in their excesses, but they’ve given them new shape and weight. They’ve put some ballast in their ballads.
Which hasn’t stopped Martin from doing what comes naturally: singing corny drivel. The lyrics are full of miracles and angels and soaring eagles, and “philosophy” along the lines of “Life has a beautiful crazy design.” Coldplay has hinted that A Head Full of Dreams might be its last album. If that’s true, it’s a fitting swan song, a reminder the act has been a band of and for our time, proffering heroic psychobabble. The record closes with “Up and Up,” which marshals a hip-hop beat and gospel-style chorales to drive home a pep-talk banality: “When you think you’ve had enough/Don’t ever give up.” It’s not exactly new advice, maybe not even good advice, but it’s a message that millions want to hear. And, lo and behold, you can dance to it.
Listen to Coldplay and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.