Coldplay’s sixth studio album will forever be tied to frontman Chris Martin’s out-of-the-blue announcement that he and wife Gwyneth Paltrow were separating, nearly two months before the full-length’s release. The timing of the breakup hovers over “Ghost Stories,” a short album full of straightforward meditations on heartbreak and helplessness. Instead of hinting at the split and letting listeners spit out theories about the real-life drama that inspired the album, Martin 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 ridiculousness that comes with being the World’s Biggest Rock Band; there were canyon-sized synths, rock-opera plot lines and a duet with Rihanna. By contrast, “Ghost Stories” is devoid of big moments, save for the Avicii collaboration “A Sky Full Of Stars,” which showcases the 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 arriving 14 years ago with Coldplay’s breakout single “Yellow,” Martin has had an extravagant voice in pop music, aiming at grandeur more often than mining his songs’ intimate moments. On “Ghost Stories,” the inverse is true, and it’s wholly 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 affecting. As 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 before dropping away completely.
Broken pleas like “Just tell me you love me/If you don’t, then lie, lie to me,” from the song “True Love,” can make “Ghost Stories” a difficult listen at times, thanks to the prior knowledge of Martin’s failed marriage. But in many ways, Coldplay’s sharp left turn is also its most listenable album 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 the rest of the band will no doubt spring back to life on future releases, but for once, reveling in the darkness sounds like a great idea.
What songs on Coldplay’s latest full-length are the highlights? Check out our track-by-track review of “Ghost Stories.”
1. Always In My Head – “Ghost Stories” begins with what sounds like literal ghost stories, as Martin admits to sleepless nights while a faceless voice floats behind him. As guitar curly-q’s float upward, the singer sounds more broken than ever, as if every insecurity hurts to say aloud in fear that it will become true.
“Always In My Head” hinted at the downbeat vibe of “Ghost Stories,” but “Magic,” Coldplay’s most unassuming lead single to date also definitively establishes that contemplative mood. The gloomy refrain and pleas over restrained piano flourishes finally give way to the chiming riffs of the bridge, which soon dial back down to the chilliness of the intro.
3. Ink – The pops of percussion are married with pensive guitar strokes as Martin delivers the first line, “Got a tattoo that said ‘Together Through Life’/Carved in your name with my pocket knife.” When the music swells up, it does so politely, and Martin finally lets his cry escape on the second verse.
4. True Love – There’s another mention of “the fire below” as Martin settles in over heavy rhythms, dancing synths and wallowing strings to deliver perhaps the saddest song on the album. Repetition is key on “Ghost Stories,” as Martin echoes his phrases — “Tell me you love me, if you don’t then lie” — to create a sense of begging.
The first song released from “Ghost Stories,” “Midnight” finds Martin actually sounding like a ghost, his distorted vocals croaking requests like “leave a light, a light on.” It’s not “Kid A” and it’s a little too long, but stylistically, “Midnight” makes sense in the middle of the album, and harkens back to shuddering early singles like “Trouble.”
6. Another’s Arms – Before Martin’s normal voice rejoins the album, a female specter croons in and out of focus; it’s painful to hear Martin sing about late night TV watching, grasping at memories of shared company. “Another’s Arms” is a songwriting gem, although the arrangement is a bit flat, with not much body to the guitar and whooshing keys added to match the stuttering drums.
7. Oceans – A blinking signal reminiscent of a sonar is one of the neat production details on “Oceans,” which also smartly echoes the word “trying” when Martin sings, “Behind the walls, love/I’m trying to change.” The singer sounds like Nick Drake on the track, his eyes fixed on the ground before the music needlessly noodles around for nearly two minutes after the proper song concludes.
8. A Sky Full Of Stars
The one instance of “Mylo Xyloto”-era Coldplay seeping in, “A Sky Full of Stars” is a joyous dance cut crafted by Avicii, and a honeycomb of energy that the album needs. Martin still sounds forlorn, of course; he sings, “Cause in a sky full of stars/I think I saw you,” with “think” being the crucial word.
9. O – Before the hidden track of guitar and ghostly voices (think Bjork’s “Vespertine”), this beautifully produced piano ballad poignantly offers a sense of hope and forgiveness. Similar to “X&Y” closer “Til Kingdom Come,” “O” is stripped of pretense, and Martin sounds utterly exhausted by the final line.
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