Review Summary: Coldplay’s latest release is a collection of harmless Electronca-esque Soft Rock ballads interspersed with their signature sound with little in the way of substance lurking beneath the slick and modernized surface.
Following the Electronica stylings of Mylo Xyloto (2011), fans of Coldplay have wondered if the Soft Rock band had abandoned their initial musical style to embrace a full-on Pop Rock sound. While Ghost Stories is far from your run-of-the-mill Pop record, it contains an abundance of electronic influences with minimal use of traditional Rock instruments or motifs. So what is Ghost Stories like? Well, this is still Coldplay, and their sound is everpresent in the abundance of synths and electronic flourishes throughout. The result is a stripped down, simplified record that ultimately goes nowhere and fails to pack a real punch of any kind.
Mylo Xyloto stood out from the rest of their discography as being more upbeat and electronic in an attempt to conform to mainstream Pop music. Ghost Stories follows suit, but while the music on Mylo Xyloto was a mess of synthesizers and traditional rock instruments awkwardly plastered together, Ghost Stories utilizes a mellower and more consistent sound while trimming the number of songs and their lengths. Their change in sound is most likely due to Chris Martin’s troublesome and highly publicized separation from Gwyneth Paltrow. His lyrics revolving around concepts dealing with love being like “Magic” and crooning over “You’re like a sky full of stars” come across as clichéd and quickly wear out their welcome behind the equally bland electronic textures.
Coldplay have often been accused of ripping off or even plagiarizing other artists’ music (U2, Oasis, Radiohead, Joe Satriani), and the public knowledge of Chris Martin’s love for A-Ha is everpresent here. Guitars and drums have given way to synths and electronic keyboards with few exceptions. Variety has never been a strength of theirs, and the stylistic change here is welcome. However, one can’t escape the feeling that the majority of it feels like background noise to existing music. The album’s overreliance on electronics and synths end up being one of its major flaws as when used here end up sounding like futuristic background music. It has a nice sound, but not much else.
While musical progression is one way to describe Ghost Stories, the songs end up sounding formulaic and predictable. At a certain point the realization sets in that the album ultimately doesn't go anywhere especially interesting or different, lyrically or musically. “Always In My Head” is a suitable opener with a smooth bassline over chiming electronics with minimal lyrics. Lead single “Magic” is an optimistic track featuring a low key dance beat and one of Chris Martin’s best vocal performances on the album. Acoustic guitar strumming comes in at the bridge, injecting some much needed substance into the song. The album might as well end there, as nothing compositionally different happens for the rest of the forty five minute running time.
“Ink” follows “Magic” with almost the exact same structure and sound. “Midnight” is the closest the band comes to overcoming their flaws and sounds like nothing they have ever done before. Atmospherics and Martin’s electronic singing dominate the first half until a mysterious sounding bridge subtly creeps in and builds to a chiming crescendo of keyboard licks and synths before descending into a low key vocal outro over a faded keyboard line. The synth elements of the early Coldplay-esque tracks “True Love” and “Anothers Arms” end up making them sound like electronica remixes of their older songs. The first half of “Oceans” is only singing and an acoustic guitar strumming interesting sounding chords before descending into a dull and unnecessary electronic outro. It ends up serving as an intro for the fist-pumping dance-pop track “A Sky Full of Stars.” Album closer “O” is a surprisingly genuine sounding piano-driven ballad where Martin sings about one day “Flying next to you." This whole album ultimately feels like a love letter to his ex, as Martin himself essentially stated as the concept. Despite being somewhat obvious, the lyrics clearly convey his thoughts and lessons from the experience.
Atmosphere and consistency have always been the band’s best qualities and is best exemplified on "Midnight." But even the few strengths this album possesses fail at times. Despite being Coldplay’s most consistent release, almost half of the songs have extended electronica outros that feel completely out of place and unnecessary. Given how short the album is, these tacked on sections ultimately feel like unnecessary filler.
Ghost Stories is ultimately harmless and competent. The simple concept is conveyed in the lyrics and the music is listenable. The low key synth and clinical sound the songs possess ultimately make for a forgettable but satisfying enough listen. In an album full of clichés and bland electronica, the stripped down simplicity of a song like "O" ends up being the most impactful part of the album, and encompasses everything it should have been.