For all the grandeur of the 25-metre whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling, the Natural History Museum’s atrium is a relatively intimate venue for stadium stalwarts Coldplay. As Chris Martin himself acknowledges partway through a piano-driven take on A Sky Full of Stars: “Normally we have some fireworks at this point, but they said this building was too precious.”
From his repeated references (including some dreadful puns: he’d wanted the gig “near Wales, not whales!”, etc), Martin can’t seem to believe his luck in having secured the “non-conventional venue” for one of the first shows in service of Coldplay’s new release, Everyday Life – tonight, set against skeletal life.
The double-disc album finds Coldplay in an expansive mode, trying out demo recordings, doo-wop, vaguely religious imagery, and even a political identity in sampling an incident of racist police harassment and decrying inadequate gun control in the US. Some of these experiments – such as Church, featuring guest vocals from Norah Shaqur, singing in Arabic, and the sinister, rumbling Trouble in Town – are more persuasive live than on the record, finding a solid footing in the confidence conveyed by the band’s performance and the choice of stage.
Martin’s understated vocal is charming in a call-and-response with a gospel quartet in Broken. Later, the idea that Everyday Life is Coldplay’s Graceland moment is reinforced when Femi Kuti (Fela’s son) and his brass quintet join the band for a stomping, honking rendition of Arabesque. (They recently performed it together during an ambitious concert live-streamed from Jordan.)
Any misgivings about white (you might say, the whitest) musicians accessorising with African instrumentalists are alleviated when Martin cedes the stage to Kuti and his band for an extended sax-and-vocal jam – an unexpected but welcome collaboration for a band that, one evolution ago, was branching out with the Chainsmokers in an ancillary role.
But the biggest question is what this reinvention of sorts is in service of, what statement Coldplay are trying to make about Everyday Life – and not only does it remains elusive in this performance, opportunities to clarify are curiously missed.
Instead of being underscored as a talking point of the album, Guns – as explicitly political as the band have ever been – is skipped over lightly as a precursor to Sparks from Parachutes (2000). Daddy, too – a song that Martin has said was inspired by children growing up without fathers because of the US prison industrial complex – is introduced by the clarification that it is not about Martin’s own dad, but is “an empathetic exercise”.
There was also no reference to the band’s decision to pause touring until it could be made environmentally sustainable, despite proceeds from this show going towards charitable organisation ClientEarth – and the highly conspicuous reminders of biodiversity flanking the stage. It is telling that Fix You, “an oldie” as Martin put it, and Viva La Vida – the rare chart-topping pop song that can also fill a cathedral – had the most impact. For all their new sound and apparent politicised identity, Coldplay are still doing what they have always done: sweeping emotional statements with hazy nuclei.
Few would expect them to come out on stage campaigning, but in the run-up to a pivotal general election, on the night that Stormzy – an heir to their Glastonbury main stage – mobilised voters for Corbyn on social media, the oblique gestures towards profundity seemed especially lacking in context and urgency. During an undeniably special and joyful performance, that was the elephant skeleton in the room.