Review: Coldplay, Ghost Stories

Coldplay's first album, post-"Conscious Uncoupling."

opinion by MATTHEW M. F. MILLER

Timing isn’t everything, but it accounts for a fair amount of the colors and shades that paint the way we experience unexpected situations. Which means the arrival of Ghost Stories, a new Coldplay album, in the exhale breath of our post-“Conscious Uncoupling” era will forever be tinted by the pretentious breakup of frontman Chris Martin and America’s shrillest, kale-filled punching bag, Gwyneth Paltrow. Because the listening public tends to be rather vicious toward his soon-to-be ex (myself included), it’s only natural that Coldplay fans and detractors alike might find themselves in a near-frenzy at the prospect of songs written during the unraveling of their oft-scrutinized relationship.

Expression of deep feelings is the band’s calling card and, for the most part they emote better than any major rock band in the business today. Love them or hate them, their music is sonically exhilarating and more often than not it makes you feel something. Coldplay music always has elicited strong emotions – for some folks it’s of the stirring, rousing fist-pump variety while others have been locked in the eye rolling loathe phase since their debut in 1999. Both camps will have plenty to feel confused about with Ghost Stories, a cycle of nine mostly sleepy, electronic-tinged songs that rarely achieves anything worth getting worked up about, positively or negatively.

While greatness is never achieved here, there are tracks of exceptional quality. “Oceans” is a gentle, falsetto-led song that could be the bleep-bloop update of the strum-filled “Sparks” from the band’s debut, Parachutes. “Midnight”, the first track released from the album, generated countless unflattering critiques labeling it as Bon Iver lite. In context, the song stands out as one of the few moments of honest, raw emotion as it unravels Martin’s voice into an array of soft threads. Here, he actually sounds like the broken man he sings about throughout, and you can’t help but root for him to be put back together again. The album’s best track, “Magic”, is skittering mid-tempo number that best defines the hopefulness Martin has in wake of his divorce: “And if you were to ask me, after all that we’ve been through, ‘Still believe in magic?’ Of course I do.” It’s the most Coldplay moment of any song on Ghost Stories.

“Always In My Head”, “Ink” and “True Love” all have elements that would make for decent Coldplay offerings, but they are weighed down by misguided, boring production, plodding song progression and a lack of live instrumentation. The entire album feels like the Chris Martin sorrow show. Never before has the importance of Guy Berryman, Will Champion and Jonny Buckland been so apparent as it is here, at the exact moment they seem to disappear completely. It’s almost as if they are unheralded ghosts on Ghost Stories.

Most bewildering, and likely most controversial, is “A Sky Full of Stars”, the band’s collaboration with the Big Mac of EDM, Avicii. Unlike any major Coldplay single before it, it reeks of desperation to be hip and popular. Why would the world’s biggest rock band settle for merely fitting in? Why would they create a song that would have sounded like one of a dozen similar hits on the radio last summer? Sure, “Paradise” (off their 2011’s uneven Mylo Xyloto) wasn’t the earth-shattering megahit that “Viva la Vida” became, but it was a ubiquitous enough track that the band didn’t need to reach into the bag of mass-produced tricks to maintain their dominance just yet. Coldplay has always been "cool" because they seemed cool with their un-coolness. Self-awareness is boss, except when achieving self-awareness leads to an embarrassing overcorrection like “A Sky Full of Stars”.

For an album that aims to explore the most emotional time in Martin’s life, Ghost Stories stands as Coldplay’s most distancing effort to date. The songs tell you what to feel and how to feel it instead of leading you to experience actual human feelings. Listening to Ghost Stories is like having Sarah McLachlan shove pictures of abused animals directly into your ears. As much as you care and as much as you want to feel sad, you can’t be blamed if after a listen or two, all you feel is manipulated.  C