Oh, being a fly on the wall during production meetings for Coldplay Music of the Spheres tour, currently capping a run of six sold-out nights at Wembley Stadium in London. Countless stakeholders are said to have pondered the environmental aspects of the tour following Coldplay’s announcement in 2019 that they would stop touring while they seek to make things less bad for the planet.
Skeptics will note that the band’s ever-magical glow bracelets are now made of compostable plastic. Anyone with any knowledge of Coldplay concerts knows that the play of color across the hall, like a whisper of starlings, is one of the greatest spectacles of stadium staging. The floor is wired to harness the kinetic energy of 90,000 bouncing souls. If only they could plug in Chris Martin himself, who exudes gigawatts of running energy, landing the punches. The group is said to have hauled stuff using as little carbon as possible – though if any act could pull off a fleet of Phileas Fogg-style solar-powered hot-air zeppelins, it’s this one, with its tiggerish optimism and penchant for to release brightly colored balloons. The giant beach balls come out on Adventure of a Lifetime, two songs in this bountiful, career-spanning set — one that baffles as much as it dazzles.
Oh, for seeing the expressions when Martin (presumably) sketched out a series of eerie, glowing alien masks for the group to wear on Infinity Sign. The headgear is full of antennae, eyes and ears, and for bassist Guy Berryman, there’s a Mohican Marvin the Martian. One of the main messages of Music of the Spheres, Coldplay’s ninth album, released last year, is: “Everybody’s an alien somewhere.” And while it’s hard not to applaud the band’s stance, it’s mind-boggling to imagine what Martin (presumably) had to say to his fellow talented multi-millionaires to persuade them to carry on as demented football club mascots. and play their instruments at the same time.
Nobody was reluctant to embrace the puppet, as innovative as it is? Music of the Spheres takes place in space (sort of) and co-stars the non-human Angel Moon, who “sings” a few tunes. Of course, everyone loves a Muppet – Angel Moon is the work of studio Jim Henson. Martin duets with her (actuated by a puppeteer) on Biutyful, a sweet love song about the redemptive powers of love in the face of all that goes to hell in a handcart (even though handcarts are environmentally friendly modes of transport).
But while puppetry has an artistic history, it all feels like an appeal to an audience so young we no longer have an alphabet to describe it. While Coldplay’s connection with BTS, My Universe, has crossed Gen Z, and their song with Selena Gomez, Let Somebody Go, has made hay with millennials, here Coldplay seems to be courting the under-10s. And no one has noticed that Angel Moon looks like an unfortunate caricature of Grimes, the long-haired, often winged, often alien-looking electronic artist whose own ventures draw far more from the story of Science fiction ?
The problem is not a small grimace. Coldplay has long given up tedious binaries such as cool v uncool; it’s the height of uncool to keep saying how uncool they are. The biggest group in the world for a few years. End of the conversation.
But their shift from rock to true light entertainment is sealed tonight. Three nights into the residency, Natalie Imbruglia replaces previous guest Craig David and performs her 1993 earworm Torn – not in itself the problem, as much as Summer Nights’ massive vocals Fat. It is in memory of the late Olivia Newton-John, who, Martin explains, he and his father met in Australia a few years ago in the company of Imbruglia. But making songs from musicals, no matter how enjoyable? Coldplay seems to have shed a lot of ink in pursuit of mass euphoric singing, borrowing eagerly from everyone in dance music, especially those with headgear, in an effort to build ever larger audiences.
In 2014, Coldplay released A Sky Full of Stars, a collaboration with the late producer Avicii, a milestone where Martin et al became particularly enamored with the euphoria of superstar DJ raves. Other forays followed, such as with Stargate (2015) and Something Just Like This, their hit with the Chainsmokers.
Coldplay has always had a pop appeal – the product of strong melodies, frontman charisma and songs about universals. They landed on the “woah oh oh” as a form of Esperanto that allowed them to commune as effectively in Taipei as they did in São Paulo. But somewhere along the line, they began to actively develop into a sort of borderless, haggling phenomenon. Music of the Spheres bears the mark of the greatest of them all, Max Martin, whose production style continues to shape the charts even today, 22 years after his signature hit, Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time.
A missionary determined to increase his herd, Martin’s expansionist will is perplexing. Coldplay doesn’t seem like the type of guy to get sucked into macho pissing contests. Anyone with a passing understanding of environmental issues knows that exponential growth is a hubristic chimera, the fundamental principle of capitalism responsible for the impending collapse of the planet. Also: does size matter? Martin is undoubtedly at his best armed with a piano and a bruised heart.
It’s, categorically, a lot of fun to see 90,000 people getting by with a band they love. People come to a stadium show for the absurd audiovisual madness. Yes, of course the groups must evolve. But Martin is perfectly capable of nailing the human condition without this massive outreach program.
“Nobody said it was easy”, he sings on The Scientist, with 90,000 choristers this evening, a word applicable to the resolution of the climate crisis as well as to maintaining his art almost a quarter century in the game. “No one ever said it would be so difficult.”