“You’ve got a higher power,” Chris Martin tells a brand new flame — and, by extension, each and every citizen of Earth — on Coldplay’s ninth album, adding, “I’m so happy I’m alive.” He may be literally the only person who feels that way in 2021, and that, of course, is part of the Coldplay magic, such as it is. Once again, they’ve set up shop at the 50-yard line of pop-rock possibility, and in their eternally expansive vision, reimagined the middle of the road as a land of hope and dreams. Musically and lyrically, the band has rarely sounded so ecstatic. “We’re only human, capable of kindness, so they call us humankind,” Martin sings on “Humankind” over a radiant haymaker of aspirant guitar churn, blindingly bright Eighties synth stabs, and upwardly mobile drum swirls — a sound so uplifting it makes or Bono or Bruce Springsteen at their most heroic sound like junior-high goths who just got their screen time taken away.
Obviously, big gulps of redemption are what we’ve come to expect from Martin. In some ways, Music of the Spheres picks up where the band’s last album, 2019’s Everyday Life, left off. That LP attempted to add realist specifics and global sonics to their vaguely defined universal humanism, setting politically-tinged lyrics to music that filtered in West African pop and reggae elements. This time out they’ve gone even further, reaching for a humanism so universal it’s literally intergalactic. As its title suggests, Music of the Spheres is a concept album about outer space, specifically a distant solar system called the Spheres; it’s an almost unnervingly well-timed idea, arriving right on top of a new Dune movie and just a couple days after our Twitter feeds were all gummed up with whoa, dude images of William Shatner gazing out at our sad, salty world through the window of Jeff Bezos’ space penis.
Coldplay have gone so far as to map out their fictional solar system with made-up planets like Kubic, Calypso, and Coloratura, and they’ve even schematized the record so each song corresponds to one of their make-believe worlds. The shyly blissed-out “Biutyful,” for instance, is the sonic embodiment of the eighth planet, Floris. Musically, the vibe of this celestial realm is represented by the lush, spacious ambient textures of “Alien Choir” and the equally wonder-drunk “Infinity Sign,” with its pastel disco bounce, New Age keyboards, and distant sample of a chanting crowd that sounds like a Close Encounters visitation over a sold-out soccer stadium.
That unique level of thematic specificity notwithstanding, the record itself doesn’t get weighed down by any sort of Rush-size storyline, nor is there some pain-in-the-ass heavy-handed sci-fi message to deal with (beyond the predictably intimated vibes of harmony, wonder, etc.). Martin’s deep space is mainly personal and romantic; his HAL 9000 is a heart emoji. “You are my universe/I just want to put you first,” he sings on the rapturous “My Universe,” a sleek, sunny, disco-spritzed highlight featuring BTS.
Top 40 sage Max Martin is on board in the role of Mr. Spock, helping remind Coldplay why they’ve lived long and prospered in the first place — that is, by strategizing an album that’s about as strenuously pleasant as anything in their canon. “Human Heart” is a winningly pie-eyed experiment in a cappella vocoder soul; “Let Somebody Go,” featuring a lovely duet vocal from Selena Gomez, is a soft-focus study in post-breakup solemnity that’s got more warmth and grace than most artists’ crushed-out valentines.
The album isn’t all soothing Yoda metaphysics. On “People of the Pride,” the music jarringly swerves into a nu-metal storm-trooper stomp as Martin sings about an insane, murderous dictator, a “crook” who “swears he’s god.” How this fits into the space concept thing isn’t super-clear (the song lines up with planet Ultra, which must be a real hellhole). In actuality, it’s the one moment on Music of the Spheres that feels like it’s being beamed in from our own dystopic existence — a reality in which, just to take one example purely at random, a billionaire can shoot himself into space while his workers back down here live like serfs. Yet fear not, patient listener: By the second verse of the song, the masses have bound together, turned their rags into flags (literally, that’s the metaphor), overthrown their oppressor and stepped proudly into the baptismal fount of love and freedom. “Say yeah!,” Martin implores us. Yeah, indeed, Captain Chris. In the Coldplay cosmology, all the salvation you can possibly stand is just a yeah away.