Context is everything when it comes to Coldplay. Ever since 2005’s X&Y the post-Britpop juggernaut perfected the craft of the dramatic, big-budget concept album, and Ghost Stories is no exception. Where this release stands out is in ethos, not form — the band’s sixth record is unquestionably their darkest to date, heavily influenced by the dissolution of frontman Chris Martin’s 11-year marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow. If 2011’s Mylo Xyloto was Coldplay’s arena-razing “love conquers all” moment, Ghost Stories is the devastating denouement.
It’s clear from the opening notes of “Always in My Head” that this is anything but an immediate album, but the record’s dense, livable atmosphere more than makes up for its lack of anthems. Cavernous reverb and electronic echoes conjure a stormy environment for Martin to drift through, wandering alone with his thoughts. Consistently stellar production is possibly the most overlooked part of Coldplay’s discography (save for the over-compressed, overwhelming barrage of Mylo Xyloto) and producers Paul Epworth, Daniel Green and Rik Simpson really knocked it out of the park on this one. The trio help the band maintain a uniform aesthetic while shaping an identity for each song. Their production only makes it easier to get lost in an already seamless album.
Our first glimpse of Ghost Stories came in the form of “Midnight,” a minimalist electronic composition built around distant, digitally manipulated vocals from Martin and pulsating synth pads lifted from an unfinished Jon Hopkins track. “Midnight” was never released as a proper single, and the track confounded many of the band’s passionate fans, yet the tune makes perfect sense in the setting of Ghost Stories. Its chilling aura reflects the internal turmoil the protagonist faces in the present while subtly hinting at a more hopeful road ahead:
In the darkness before the dawn
In the swirling of the storm
When I’m rolling with the punches and hope is gone
Leave a light on
Coldplay should be applauded for maintaining a tricky balancing act: they continue to cling to their musical roots while surviving several consecutive changes in style and sound. It’s fascinating to witness the band revisit the bare-bones songwriting of their beloved debut, Parachutes, only to reinterpret that old approach through new, less obvious R&B and electronic textures. “Midnight” and its quietly tense buildup improve with every listen, as do most of the songs here. The down tempo tune “Another’s Arms” fell flat during the band’s intimate SXSW performance only to shine in the studio, utilizing a sonorous Jane Weaver vocal sample to great effect. Her wordless crooning is the spark for one more restless night of ruminations.
“A Sky Full of Stars”, the band’s eyebrow-raising collaboration with Avicii, is also redeemed by its placement in the grand scheme of things. A minute-long bed of ambient sound consumes the solemn acoustic strumming of “Oceans,” providing an effortless lead-in to some upbeat EDM. Though drummer Will Champion is unfortunately jettisoned for artificial drum samples—as with nearly every other track on the album—the single’s blissed-out synth blasts and four-on-the-floor grooves are a breath of fresh air befitting such a dour record. Don’t be surprised if “A Sky Full of Stars” becomes a permanent part of the band’s live show.
Coldplay’s greatest strength is their sincerity, but Ghost Stories escalates the heart-on-sleeve sentiment to a new level of discomfort. The sumptuous ballad “True Love” cuts to the core with a quietly devastating refrain of “Tell me you love me…if you don’t then lie to me.” “True Love” features Timbaland on bass drum, pounding out rhythms reminiscent of his remix of OneRepublic’s “Apologize”, and the ever-reliable Jonny Buckland lends a brief but shrill guitar solo. There are deft vocal melodies, clever chord changes, percussive synth arpeggios and a seriously gorgeous string arrangement. It all adds up to what is unquestionably the best song on the album.
Not everything here is awe-inspiring, however. The band’s unfiltered approach misfires on “Ink,” an early track that interrupts the greatness of first single “Magic” and “True Love” for a goofy detour into the diary of an angst-ridden adolescent. Though “Ink” has a serviceable chorus and a pleasant bridge, the way Martin sings the lines “Got a tattoo and the pain’s alright / just wanted a way of keeping you inside” in the second verse is hard to enjoy.
Make no mistake, Ghost Stories is anything but lyrically sophisticated. It’s a common complaint that continues to prevent the band from winning over-jaded rock critics, but considering the deeply personal nature of this record, a few ham-fisted lyrics are to be expected. After all, much of what makes Coldplay so popular is Martin’s easily relatable writing. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel lost, lonely, or lovelorn, and there’s a certain art in presenting those feelings through succinct statements.
Ghost Stories will soundtrack many a breakup this year, but for the rest of us it works as an excellent late night, rainy day record. While this album can’t compete with the stadium rock triumphs of Viva la Vida, A Rush of Blood to the Head, or Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay managed to extend their streak of successes with another impeccably constructed album. Let’s hope they continue to surprise the world for years to come.
Rating: 4 stars