For the last decade, Coldplay have been trying to outdo themselves with their ornate, exploding style of pop rock with each passing album. 2005’s X&Y is an emotional roller coaster of pounding organ and rhythm; 2008’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is their first foray into true radio pop with hits like “Viva la Vida” and “Lost!”; 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, although mesmerizing in its own way, sounds nothing like the band that released “Yellow” and “The Scientist.”
That being said, one would expect their next album to be the musical equivalent of an LSD trip (or perhaps just Sgt. Pepper’s for the 21st century). On the contrary, Ghost Stories is the most subdued, restrained, and heartfelt album since their debut, 2001’s Parachutes. The album cover depicts angel wings in the shape of a broken heart over a calm sea, and that’s pretty much the only way to describe this album. This virtual 180 degree turn from their projected path is rooted in the rocky relationship between Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. Most of Coldplay’s recent music has been full of hope and wish fulfillment, but Ghost Stories is full of a much wider palette of emotions, including regret, fear, and loss. Album opener “Always in My Head” includes the lyrics “Though I try, my heart stays still” and “My mouth waters to be fed,” while lead single “Magic” has Martin yearning that he’s “Broken into two” and “Can’t get over you.”
“Ink” takes on a more rhythmic vibe, and is reminiscent of “Lost!” although it’s a softer, more depressing take on the subject matter. “Feels like there’s something broken inside” is no “waiting till the shine wears off.” “True Love” might be one of the most sadistic songs in Coldplay’s catalog, and yet it is eerily beautiful. “Tell me you love me/If you don’t then lie, lie to me/And call it true, call it true love,” is a haunting thing to tell someone and yourself. It is also where the underlying theme of this album begins to take form: it’s as if Martin is singing us through his stages of grief. “Always in My Head” and “Magic” are denial: you’re still here and everything is going to be OK. “Ink” is anger: “I’m dying of thirst/All I know is that I love you so” is a more passive aggressive take, but I think it fits nonetheless. Here, “True Love” is bargaining and even some more denial: he is basically saying that he wants her to pretend everything is fine and he’ll do anything to keep the status quo, even if it’s accepting a boldfaced lie. “Midnight, “Another’s Arms,” and “Oceans” are depression: “When I’m rolling with the punches and hope is gone,” “Wish that you were here beside me,” and “Wait for your call, love/the call never came” are pretty straightforward. “A Sky Full of Stars” is where the album picks up sonically (it was produced by Avicii, after all), and together with “O,” is finally acceptance: “I don’t care, go on and tear me apart/I don’t care if you do,” is his first breath of fresh air after years under water, drowning under that calm sea. “O” goes on to complement that sentiment with an image of birds (a common symbol for the band in recent years): “One minute they arrive, next you know they’re gone/They fly on, fly on.” This is where those angel wings pick him up and allow him to move on. It’s a fitting end to a very relevant album.
So many albums and songs about breakups are about the process of breaking up or the immediate aftermath. It is refreshing to hear an album about the emotional distress suffered months or years after the fact. It’s not just, “I’m not over you.” It’s every layer beneath that cut up and spun out into a beautifully woven tapestry of emotion that leads to much needed closure. It takes real courage to be that open with yourself and the person you love(d), and it’s good to know all that potential for great music wasn’t kept buried inside. Ghost Stories sounds like what I expected after X&Y, and yet it could only have been released now. I will wonder what song could have been a sequel to Mylo Xyloto‘s anthemic “Hurts Like Heaven” or “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” but maybe we’ll get that with their next album.
Ghost Stories: B+