Review Summary: Heartbreak by numbers.
Albums released in the aftermath of a failed relationship tend to be particularly tricky to review, mainly as there’s no reliable way of telling when an artist might be drawing from personal experience or is simply exercising some artistic liberty. Accordingly, Coldplay’s Ghost Stories
, which is at least partly inspired by vocalist Chris Martin’s recent relationship troubles with Gwyneth Paltrow, deserves to be approached with some initial trepidation. Too bad, then, that these lovable Brits don’t seem to be the slightest bit bothered with maintaining any semblance of subtlety – Ghost Stories
is quick to make clear that it is a breakup album and not much else, with Martin’s nine-song narrative charting a steady parabolic curve through the various emotional states of a man who has just endured a sudden and dramatic end to his relationship (spoiler alert: it ends with his eventual acceptance of the situation).
Now, I’m fairly certain that this isn’t the first time anyone’s ever thought of doing something like this (hello Beck), plus this sort of base idea for a concept album is fairly hackneyed anyway, but the real take-home message here is that there’s a tangible atmosphere of introspection and commiseration that pervades Ghost Stories
. In contrast, Coldplay’s last outing, 2011’s Mylo Xyloto
, was nothing short of a polyphonic explosion, and this has the effect of immediately casting Ghost Stories
as a denouement of sorts. But while Mylo Xyloto
was a triumphant excursion to infinity and beyond, Coldplay’s attempt at plumbing the depths of the human heart only serves to make them seem sluggish and heavy-handed; Chris Martin might soon come to regret making this particular collection of songs his grand break-up album.
does have several interesting moments, but they don’t come in large enough clumps to make one feel genuinely partial to the entirety of Martin's lovelorn parade. The album’s best stretch takes place in its opening half, with the triumvirate of “Magic”, “Ink”, and “True Love” being particularly solid compositions. “Magic” is an absolute joy to listen to, with its insistent bass riff – as well as its supple keys and watery guitar – establishing a real sense of purpose and direction, elements that the rest of the record tends to lack. Martin’s in-character narrative also variously cycles through a compelling medley of self-pity, wistfulness, and outright despair: “If you were to ask me/After all that we’ve been through/Still believe in magic? Well yes, I do
,” he sighs. Even his ridiculous vocal calisthenics (“I call it maaaaaa, maa-maa-maa-aaa-gicc!
” goes the frontman at one point) have enough pathos in them to end up being a success. Elsewhere, “Ink” is the sort of mid-tempo number that Coldplay could probably write in their sleep – “Got a tattoo that said ‘Together through Life’/Carved in your name with my pocket knife
,” begins Martin above a bed of delightful percussion and spindly guitar strokes – while “True Love” in turn manages to overcome its decidedly hokey subject matter to culminate in a bridge that is easily one of the album’s more poignant moments.
Unfortunately, the goodwill generated by these gains are almost entirely obliterated by malformed protrusions like the absolutely awful “Another’s Arms”, which sees Martin devolving before our very eyes into a cheap impersonation of James Blunt, with all manner of creepy and insincere come-ons included: “Late night watching TV/Used to be here beside me/Used to be your arms around me/Your body on my body
,” whispers the Martin-Blunt hybrid huskily, with that last line serving only to ram rather unpleasant mental images into our mind’s eye. Then there’s "Always in My Head", which is the dullest opener that Coldplay have conjured up in years, with the song’s trippy studio effects and ethereal sensibilities being considerably tempered by an overarching sense of indecision on its ultimate direction. The inclusion of a track like “A Sky Full of Stars” on the album also says a lot about Coldplay’s artistic intensions. While the Avicii-backed number isn’t bad in the slightest, I can imagine about a half-dozen narratives which a song like “A Sky Full of Stars” might be able to fit into, and this simply isn’t one of them. None of that probably matters to Martin and co. though, as the Swede’s presence on Ghost Stories
is undoubtedly meant to be nothing more than a cross-genre endorsement, with no real utility beyond the promise of enhanced chart attention from EDM’s burgeoning ranks of fans.
Overall, Coldplay’s decision to drop back a couple of gears does not serve them well, especially given the fact that the quality of Martin’s lyrics rarely rise above the serviceable. With the rest of the band lacking any sort of transcendent power or punch, any deficiencies already present simply end up being magnified. Coldplay have never been particularly original innovators, but they always had enough nous and a handful of great-to-classic songs that made each of their records worth checking out. This time around, deprived of their usual energy or lyrical quotient, they are nothing more than a momentarily likable diversion.