A minimalist new approach gives Coldplay's latest the liminal, lonely feel of a Chris Martin solo album
Once upon a time, picking over Chris Martin lyrics was a sport, a race to guess the rhyming word. Like Noel Gallagher — and doesn’t that just trip off the tongue? — Martin seemed to be filling up space, chucking in a few platitudes to bulk up the bars between big choruses. He may not be Dylan just yet, but everyone will be parsing ‘Ghost Stories’ for a different sort of clue, maybe even hamfisted attempts to rhyme “conscious” and “coupling”. Go on, chalk that up.
Actually, perhaps he is a bit Dylan. If Coldplay are ever going to make their own ‘Blood On The Tracks’ (and if you’ve been holding your breath for that, you’re probably in some strife now) this is the time. There was a collective sigh when news broke that Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow were splitting up. We’ve all lost something here, the beguiling image of the awkward, everyman, not-quite rockstar wooing the Hollywood superstar — but perhaps we can all gain something too. A raw, true Coldplay album might be an unexpectedly meaty treat for the masses, and a weight off Martin’s shoulders.
They’ve gone in eyes open, intending to adjust both sound and position, and it’s a familiar strategy. There’s always been a touch of the U2s about Coldplay’s trajectory, from the vertiginous climb to the stadium big league to, naturally, the hiring of Brian Eno’s fairydust talents. Compared album by album, it might go something like this: ‘X&Y’ was as complacent as ‘Rattle & Hum’, ‘Viva La Vida’ — with its knowing “Enoxification”, lively embrace of pure pop and awareness of its surroundings — was as seminal as ‘Achtung Baby’. Neatly, we can call ‘Prospekt’s March’ their ‘Zooropa’, while ‘Mylo Xyloto’ was ‘Pop’ from every angle, all shrill, disjointed highs, little triangles of bunting in search of a thread. That puts ‘Ghost Stories’ alongside ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’. A return to core principles. Next thing, Martin will be buying his hat first class tickets around the world.
But this isn’t quite early Coldplay rebooted. It shares a simple sparseness with ‘Parachutes’, but the approach is radically different. In harness with producers as diverse as Paul Epworth, Timbaland and Avicii, Coldplay have never sounded more electronic. Where ‘Ghost Stories’ really differs from ‘Mylo Xyloto’ is in a sharp dialling down of intensity, sonically if not lyrically, with only the Avicii-led ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’ cutting loose, and even then as a hesitant retread of ‘Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall’. It’s a reluctance that feels quite normal; introspection doesn’t invite the poppers. The real heart of ‘Ghost Stories’ is in the warped Bon Iver-isms of ‘Midnight’ with its devastated plea to “leave a light on”, in the beaten but unbowed bareness of ‘Magic’ (“If you were to ask me/After all that we’ve been through/Still believe in magic?/Yes, I do/Of course I do”), in the gorgeously off-key synth loops of ‘Oceans’ and in the choppy dubstep textures of ‘True Love’ where Martin croaks, “One last time/Tell me you love me,” and we all start to feel his own hollowness. For an album that apparently began, for the very first time, with other members providing the kernels of tracks, this doesn’t half feel like a Chris Martin solo record.
And in that sense it was never going to provide fireworks. ‘Ghost Stories’ is a feeling more than a collection of songs, and takes a willing reception for granted. That feeling’s not rancorous, it’s bloodless and resigned, but touching as well. In its warm, delicate drift, this is a quiet success and, as the choral voices and synth glitches of ‘Always In My Head’ bookend the album, there’s a suggestion it’s been parcelled up and everyone can move on. It’s all part of the process.