Coldplay’s ‘Ghost Stories’: Album Review

Carl Williott | May 19, 2014 5:30 am
We seem to be on the cusp of a soft rock revival — the type of unobtrusive stuff you’d hear in the waiting room or over your Sunday coffee and longreads. It was territory once reserved for John Mayer and Jack Johnson, but Bon Iver‘s rise a few years ago made it a place where the cool kids are flocking, and now a wave of new offerings from the likes of Beck, The War On Drugs, Future Islands and Lykke Li fall into this camp. (Even The Black Keys‘ latest is a low-impact listen). And so Coldplay have timed the release of their pared-down breakup album perfectly, as Ghost Stories (out today, ) is primed to lead the new soft rock charge.

The band’s sixth studio album is a noble attempt at resurrecting the unassuming charm of 2000’s Parachutes, and when examined in the context of the band’s entire catalog, this is a somewhat stunning pivot. After nearly fifteen years of constant escalation and expansion, Coldplay’s sound had crested with the pop-rock self-parody of Mylo Xyloto, and now the world’s biggest and most exuberantly anthemic band suddenly curls up like a pill bug and turns out an album-length quiet sob. Though it comes off as calculated compared to the handcrafted, almost accidental feel of their debut, Ghost Stories still comprises the band’s most emotionally direct and affecting material

Since “Midnight” was the first taste of the album, the whole LP can initially leave you feeling underwhelmed, like they chickened out on the experimental impulses promised by that buzz track. But after a few more spins, it becomes clear that Chris Martin and co. still pulled off an impressive feat here, essentially unlearning everything that made them Coldplay. There’s nothing grandiose, there are no chest-beating singalongs. This being a breakup album, it’s about a void — so the soaring falsetto, the pounding piano, Jonny Buckland’s guitar leads chiming into the heavens, those elements are all missing.

This shift in tone is apparent right away, as there isn’t a proper “Coldplay” moment until about 2:45 into song two, and even then, the brief burst of light only lasts for about 40 seconds. For the most part, Martin exists in a wistful haze, presumably mourning the end of his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow. An album to fix the guy who said he’d fix you could’ve been a dubious proposition, but on album six he generally avoids sappiness in favor of true vulnerability and a visceral sense of longing. Instead of tapping into the universal with broad emotions, he takes the soul-crushing personal and makes it universal. Whether the lyrics are simple (“Late night watching TV, used to be in here beside me” on “Another’s Arms”) or brutal (“My body moves, goes where I will / But though I try my heart stays still” on “Always In My Head,” “Tell me you love me, if you don’t, then lie to me” on the otherwise bland “True Love”), often they’re powerful enough to make you lay off the “conscious uncoupling” snark for a minute.

To augment the sense of loss and separation, Ghost Stories is littered with subtle production flourishes like theremins, distant church bells and chirping birds, the sounds of something out of grasp, something vanishing into the distance. Angelic yet nondescript female voices float in and out, a constant reminder that a woman’s presence looms over everything Martin says.

The downside to taking this tiny music route is that, beyond the earworm melody of “Magic,” the songs themselves don’t really stick with you. “Oceans” is wonderful, but it blends together with “O” when you try to recall them later, and the same goes for “Another’s Arms” and “Always In My Head,” both of which are standouts. Avicii collaboration “A Sky Full Of Stars” is the lone joyful song here, but the rush of energy is dulled because it merely amounts to a post-“Wake Me Up” retread of “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” which wasn’t that memorable to begin with. (Come to think of it, “Every Teardrop” kind of predicted the “Wake Me Up”-style EDM-folk hybrid creeping into pop now.)

Even if the songs don’t burrow into your head, though, when taken together these nine tracks on Ghost Stories make a definite statement — both as a chronicle of lost love and as another example of how sneakily agile these guys are. Breakup brunch rock won’t quiet Coldplay’s detractors, but the band should be commended for taking a gamble and bailing on their tradition of uplifting stadium grandeur — even if they pulled the ripcord at the last moment to ride a parachute to a soft landing.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

— Carl Williott

Tags: ,