Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the production meetings for Coldplay’s Music of the Spheres tour, currently winding up a run of six sold-out nights at London’s Wembley stadium. Umpteen stakeholders would have pondered the tour’s environmental aspects in the wake of Coldplay’s 2019 announcement that they would stop touring while they worked out how to make it less worse for the planet.
Sceptics should note that the band’s light-up wristbands, always magical, are now made of compostable plastic. Anyone with any passing knowledge of Coldplay gigs knows that the play of the colour across the venue, like a murmuration of starlings, is one of the greatest spectacles in stadium showmanship. The floor is wired to harness the kinetic energy of 90,000 bouncing souls. If only they could wire up Chris Martin himself, who exudes gigawatts of energy running around, belting out the hits. The band reportedly ferry stuff around using as little carbon as possible – although if any act could pull off a fleet of Phileas Fogg-style solar-powered hot-air zeppelins, it’s this one, with their Tiggerish optimism and penchant for unleashing brightly coloured balloons. The giant beach balls come out on Adventure of a Lifetime, two songs into this generous, career-spanning set – one that baffles as much as it dazzles.
Oh, to have seen the expressions when Martin (presumably) sketched out a series of lurid, light-up alien masks for the band to wear on Infinity Sign. The headgear abounds with antennae, eyes and ears, and for bassist Guy Berryman there’s a Marvin the Martian mohican. One of the core messages of Music of the Spheres, Coldplay’s ninth album, released last year, is: “Everyone is an alien somewhere.” And while it’s hard not to applaud the band’s stance, it’s boggling to imagine what Martin (presumably) had to say to his fellow talented multimillionaires to persuade them to carry on like demented football club mascots and play their instruments at the same time.
Martin is arguably at his greatest armed with just a piano and a bruised heart
Did no one balk at the embrace of puppetry, innovative as it is? Music of the Spheres is set in space (sort of) and co-stars the non-human Angel Moon, who “sings” a couple of tracks. Sure, everyone loves a Muppet – Angel Moon is the work of the Jim Henson studio. Martin duets with her (operated by a puppeteer) on Biutyful, a gentle love song about the redemptive powers of love in the face of everything going to hell in a handcart (even if handcarts are green modes of transport).
But while puppetry has an arty history, all this just feels like an appeal to an audience so young we’ve run out of alphabet to describe it. While Coldplay’s hook-up with BTS, My Universe, crossed over with Gen Z, and their song with Selena Gomez, Let Somebody Go, made hay with millennials, here Coldplay appear to be courting the under-10s. And did no one notice that Angel Moon looks like an unfortunate caricature of Grimes, the long-tressed, often winged, often alien-looking electronic artist whose own ventures draw far more knowledgeably on the history of sci-fi?
The problem is not some minor cringe. Coldplay have long since opted out of tiresome binaries such as cool v uncool; it’s the height of uncool to go on about how uncool they are. Biggest band in the world for some years. End of conversation.
But their move away from rock into actual light entertainment is sealed tonight. Three evenings into the residency, Natalie Imbruglia replaces previous guest Craig David and performs her 1993 earworm Torn – not in itself the issue, so much as the massive singalong of Summer Nights from Grease. It’s in memory of the late Olivia Newton-John, who, Martin explains, he and his dad got to know in Australia some years ago in the company of Imbruglia. But doing songs from musicals, crowd-pleasing as they are? Coldplay seem to have thrown much to the wind in pursuit of the mass euphoric singalong, borrowing greedily from everyone in dance music, especially those with headgear, with the aim of building ever more vast audiences.
In 2014, Coldplay released A Sky Full of Stars, a collaboration with the late producer Avicii, a mile-marker where Martin et al became particularly enamoured of 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 have always had a pop reach – the product of strong melodies, frontman charisma and songs about universals. They landed upon the “woah oh oh” as a form of Esperanto that allowed them to commune as effectively in Taipei as they do in São Paulo. But somewhere along the line, they began to actively expand into a kind of borderless, tune-mongering phenomenon. Music of the Spheres bears the hallmark of the biggest of them all, Max Martin, whose production style continues to shape the charts even now, 22 years after his signature smash, Britney Spears’s …Baby One More Time.
A missionary hellbent on increasing his flock, Martin’s expansionist drive is perplexing. Coldplay don’t seem like the kinds of guys to get caught up in macho pissing contests. Anyone with a passing grasp of environmental issues knows that exponential growth is a hubristic chimera, the core principle of capitalism responsible for the planet’s imminent breakdown. Also: does size matter? Martin is arguably at his greatest armed with just a piano and a bruised heart.
It is, categorically, a lot of fun to witness 90,000 people wig out to a band they love. People come to a stadium show for the absurd audio-visual lunacy. Yes, of course bands need to evolve. But Martin is perfectly capable of nailing the human condition without this massive outreach programme.
“Nobody said it was easy,” he sings on The Scientist, with 90,000 backing vocalists tonight, a lyric applicable to solving the climate crisis as it is to maintaining one’s art nearly a quarter of a century into the game. “No one ever said it would be so hard.”