Coldplay’s sixth studio album will forever be tied to frontman Chris Martin’s announcement that he and wife Gwyneth Paltrow were separating, nearly two months before the full-length’s release. The marital split and its timing hover over “Ghost Stories,” a short album full of straightforward meditations on heartbreak and helplessness. Every inch of the album is bruised. On some songs, Martin wallows in the solitude; on others, he searches desperately for buoys of hope in his ocean of depression. Instead of hinting at the split and letting listeners spit out theories about the real-life drama that inspired the album, the 37-year-old has presented his gaping wound for the world to see, in rather spectacular fashion.
Coldplay’s last album, 2011’s “Mylo Xyloto,” was a shout-along opus that found the four-piece finally embracing the farce of being The World’s Biggest Rock Band: There were canyon-sized synths, rock-opera plotlines and an eminently singable duet with Rihanna. Maximalist Coldplay often hits its mark, especially when the band’s outlandish tendencies are coupled with a sense of self-awareness. But the bombast can feel like bloat when packaged as 44 minutes of nonstop anthems. By contrast, “Ghost Stories” is devoid of big moments, save for the Avicii collaboration “A Sky Full of Stars,” which showcases the DJ-producer’s pulsating keyboard riffs and pummeling beat drops. But even that flare-up is punctuated by Martin’s raspy howl in the chorus: “I don’t care, go on and tear me apart/I don’t care if you do.”
Since Martin’s arrival 14 years ago with Coldplay’s breakout single “Yellow,” his pop presence has grown ever more extravagant, aiming at grandeur rather than mining his songs’ occasional intimate moments. On “Ghost Stories,” the inverse is true, and it’s deeply refreshing to hear Martin try to confide a sentiment instead of bellow it. “Always in My Head” uses quick, cutting lines to convey sleepless defeat, while the central metaphor of “Ink” – love is a tattoo, and it hurts more to remove a name than to inscribe it – proves to be deeply affecting. While Martin’s voice cracks and careens forward, Guy Berryman’s bass chords tether the album to the ground, and Will Champion’s drums often crackle with force before dropping away completely.
“Just tell me you love me/If you don’t, then lie, lie to me,” sings Martin on “True Love.” With Martin’s failed marriage as the backdrop, broken pleas like that make “Ghost Stories” a difficult listen at times. But the band’s new approach makes the album Coldplay’s most listenable in years, an evocative concoction of sullen phrases, sparse arrangements and powerful themes. “Ghost Stories” is the sound of Coldplay rejecting its inner Coldplay-ness, at least for one album. Martin and company will no doubt spring back to life on future releases, but here, reveling in the darkness sounds like a great idea.