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Coldplay Is Trying to Do Good, but They’re Still Doing the Most

The band’s new double album, ‘Everyday Life,’ is sprawling, wordly, and alternately enjoyable and awkward

Scott Laven/Getty images

Coldplay have become such a thoughtful, moral, sociopolitically attuned stadium-rock band that they can no longer play stadiums in good conscience. “Coldplay To Pause Touring Until Concerts Are ‘Environmentally Beneficial,’” announced the BBC headline that whooshed through Music Twitter on Thursday morning, the day before the release of the group’s eighth full-length, Everyday Life. “We would be disappointed if it’s not carbon neutral,” frontman Chris Martin explained of any hypothetical future tour, and yeah, listen, that is not the most rock ’n’ roll statement you’re going to hear all day, but this is a band that excels, historically, at Not The Most Rock ’n’ Roll Statements. Let them (carbon-neutrally) cook.

Another example: Everyday Life is a double album, which means jack shit other than “it’s super long” to anyone born in this century; specifically, it is divided into Sunrise and Sunset halves, which Coldplay commemorated Friday with two live-streamed concerts in Amman, Jordan, transpiring at, yes, sunrise and sunset. (They gotta promote this record somehow.) “What kind of world do you want it to be?” Martin croons on the gentle piano-ballad title track, which concludes the Sunset portion. “Am I the future or the history?” He would prefer to be both, obviously: stadium-rock’s sunset and (more importantly) sunrise. To risk looking uncool enough to sincerely attempt such a thing is to invite your (and my) derision, which, if you think about it, is pretty rock ’n’ roll.

The environmental impact of rock concerts is a deadly serious issue that Radiohead, for example, have publicly grappled with for more than a decade; the biggest factor, alas, is that most ticket-holders drive their cars to the stadiums in question. Fun aside, though, in that BBC Coldplay report: The famous “Claw Stage” first unveiled in 2009 by U2—forever the gold standard in thoughtful, moral, sociopolitically attuned stadium-rock bands—reportedly required 120 trucks to move around and all told “generated the equivalent carbon footprint of a return flight to Mars.” To care about this stuff and to also be a huge rock band is to inevitably trip over one’s huge-carbon-footprint-generating feet. Caring about anything of remote societal import, as any major band in any era, makes you a juicy target and an inevitable short-term failure; Pearl Jam vs. Ticketmaster comes to mind. Clumsiness is forever next to Rock Godliness.

Anyway, here’s “Orphans,” the other Everyday Life single Coldplay did on Saturday Night Live earlier in November, a buoyant African-pop jam staged here as a sort of flash-mob dance party quite embarrassing in its earnestness and yet inescapable in its tunefulness. “I want to know when I can go / Back and get drunk with my friends,” the try-hard chorus begins; “I want to know when I can go / Back and be young again,” the aw-damn chorus ends. It’s less a dance party then a wistful remembrance of dance parties past. Coldplay’s ungodly-huge breakout single, “Yellow,” came out 19 years ago. (That does not link to the original version.) You hate to have been alive to have seen it.

We can agree, certainly, that 2008’s stormy Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends is Coldplay’s best album, and their best song is either “The Scientist” or “Fix You.” (My Oakland A’s fanatic buddy, not a Coldplay fan by disposition, has a vivid memory of a stadium-jumbotron montage of 2006 season highlights set to “Fix You,” with a big Frank Thomas home run right when the drums kick in, so let’s settle on that one.) Later-period Coldplay is a more fraught and by necessity overwrought thing, though it has its rewards: “A Sky Full of Stars,” an Avicii collab off 2014’s Ghost Stories, is one of the few tolerable “stadium-rock band attempts EDM” moments of our young what’s-a-double-album century. As buoyant African-pop Coldplay jams go, I am furthermore sticking with “Adventure of a Lifetime” from 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams, even though that song’s video turned the band into anthropomorphic monkeys.

The point is that Coldplay keep evolving, keep risking mild humiliation by risking anything at all, keep (gently; British-ly) pushing back against a youth culture hellbent on pushing all the old dinosaur guitar-rock bands into the sea. You learn, as a fan of these fellas, to shrug off their inherent goofiness, or better yet lean way into it, to acknowledge that the urge to wave one’s hands in the air like you just don’t care and the urge to cringe at all this caring-too-much are basically the same urge. The prettiest song on Everyday Life by some measure is “Èkó,” another gentle ballad featuring backup vocals from Nigerian pop star Tiwa Savage and a disarmingly lovely falsetto chorus that begins, “In Africa / The rivers are perfectly deep / And beautifully wide.” Oof. Exalt even as you cringe.

Everyday Life has a spare gospel hymn called “BrokEn,” complete with that capital E and a backing choir that very politely does not blow Martin out of the room. It has a moody police-brutality rumination called “Trouble in Town” that begins with Martin murmuring, “Trouble in town / Because they cut my brother down.” It has a jaunty, acoustic-driven protest song called “Guns” that allows Martin to wail, “Everybody’s gone fuckin’ crazy / Maybe I’m crazy too.” Not really, though.

Most ambitiously, it has “Arabesque,” a gargantuan anthem featuring the Belgian rapper Stromae, strident horns from Afrobeat scion Femi Kuti’s band, and a thesis statement of “We share the same blood.” Which you are free to scoff at, though you likely will not be able to hear yourself scoffing once those horns take off for real and bassist Guy Berryman makes you aware, perhaps for the first time, that Coldplay has a bassist. It is stadium-rock overreach so brazen it abandons the genre altogether, which is far preferable to Coldplay still pretending that it’s 2000, or for that matter 2008 or 2014.

Everyday Life is sprawling and starry-eyed and ostentatious in its worldliness and quite enjoyable in places and quite awkward in places, and those places tend to be the same place. Nonetheless, this is all primarily valuable as an excuse for the band to tour stadiums again, which, whoops, never mind. The snarky take here is that Coldplay have become like Michael McKean in The Good Place, so intent on Doing Good that they’re paralyzed to the point of being too afraid to do anything other than drink water recycled out of the toilet. But that, in addition to being a super obnoxious comparison, does not square with this record’s awfully winsome insistence on Doing The Most at all times. Few rock bands of our time have a bigger platform, and a greater willingness to treat it like a diving board, and a more profound urge to try to lengthen it, and paradoxically an even more profound urge to cannonball off of it. It’s a whole lot of dissonance for a band this relentlessly pleasant and elegant. But you’d be disappointed if they stayed neutral.