Coldplay - Ghost Stories

Of all the mistakes, mishaps and despondently disappointed experiences I’ve had, credit is given where credit is due when I can install a revival of interest in myself; a means of which I can balance out my expectation again to that of neutral territory without it coming across as forced, or strained. Anyone who’s followed MRD’s ramblings on Coldplay over the years, will know of the criticism we’ve thrown at Chris Martin [mostly] and the band for lauding over the necessity to push their sound closer to that of the generalised mush of anthem rock-out’s and lighter-casted sways to and fro, with little detail put in the more important aspects of song-writing. Safe to say Ghost Stories - Coldplay’s sixth album - certainly gets tongues moving (if not waggling) at the prospect of it being this back-to-beginning’s retrace; a homage to Parachutes’ secluded retreats, as it is a fresh new take on the conceptual ground concerning love, loss, heartbreak and realisation. While concept albums of this context aren’t anything new, given the scale (and yes, media attention) Martin’s personal life has found itself at, it’s no surprise that - from what we’ve heard thus far - Coldplay’s retreat towards isolated, stripped-back, surveying is at least promising.

Certainly given Mylo Xyloto’s colourful stray of pop rock felt more the after-result of spewing up an underplayed trifle, the idea that maybe…just maybe…Martin has found the intrigue in something engrossing yet remaining personal to boot, definitely makes me come to a Coldplay record, worried less on how they’ll fuck me over (again). Could they possibly impress me full-through with the same song-writing (admittedly not perfect) that at least has garnered a few diamonds amid the rough of throwaway radio-friendly noise over the years? As a loft of female choirs and string ensembles introduce us on Always In My Head, the sonic territory reminds us, like the rest of the record that follows this, we are heading into far more afflicting territory - illustrated in introspective, visceral images of despondence and continued longing. ‘My body moves, goes where I will/Though I try, my heart stays still.’ Thankfully, this is not all Martin’s ground; panoramic guitar plucks and precise drum hits lighting up the dull retreats the song sinks into, but not going out of the way to blind us from the simple, stricken words Martin expresses. 

Thus Magic is the first true sign of Coldplay’s shift to new-found ideals the album often employs - crisp, sharp drumbeats and warming loops of bass sitting neatly beneath Martin’s breathy (and thankfully), unforced falsetto on initial passes. And while Martin’s standards for imitation poetics on love are more evident in their clarity - ‘Call it magic, call it true/Call it magic, when I’m with you’ - as are his forceful attempts to rely on repetition and ‘oo oo oo’s, there’s no denying the lack of any immediate crescendo in the wash of guitars, is a greater promise on closing parts than treating the assemble of instruments like a kid treats a puzzle piece that…just…won’t…fit, dammit! It’s this shift away from the necessity to ‘cap off’ a track that pleases, if not impresses. And in the case of Ink, the instrumentation finally feels like it’s been given that breadth to be felt and immersed in rather than be shackled and deplored over. Moreso, the nimble groove and rhythm that generates in the track’s mix of these crisp, bubbling drum beats, the acoustic strums and Martin’s vocal tone, provide a richer enticement to focus in on the track’s lyrical themes of remembering better times, and as a result, Coldplay’s enticement in melodies is a skill that pleases the ear as it does the imagination.

True Love unfortunately takes from that former requisite and returns to pushing favouritism of production over the instrumental qualities of guitars and drums alike. Though a peaking of the track credits will find Timbaland's name plastered among the album's horde of producers and accredited contributors, the fact of the matter is that by no means does this track feel wrong because it's overplayed or that it's too substantial given the context. It's wrong - if you can demote it to such a definition - because of Martin's sudden vocal emphasis and the backseat approach the instrumentation takes against this. While Martin himself attempts to evoke a sense of emotional strain and sympathy with his multistage denial-come-acceptance of a broken relationship - 'So tell me you love me/If you don't, then lie' - there's a demand for the music to stand as resounding in its desperation, rather than this swain of a casual tempo it drifts amid both in the percussion and the string assembles. But as much as there are points taken off, so too we there are some additions to the band's choice of ordering come the half-way point, and the mood of the record sinks ever deeper into melancholic sadness.

Midnight sits perfectly, fittingly, at the half-way mark of the record - its cloudy, fluid motion of echoey keys and whimsical synths that emerge near the track's end attempting to remind us of the innocence of Martin's vocoder-edged voice, and succeeding because of it. Martin's presence, as faint and broken in confidence it projects, syncs well with the track's directionless free-form shape. But it's with Another's Arms where that bewildered, lost state amplifies much more painfully back to personal ground; Martin's recollecting of 'late night watching TV/You used to be here beside me' requiring neither the bloated crescendos nor Martin's own excess of previous dramatics. Instead, the well of moping bass, female choirs and hefty smacks of drumbeats give the track's longing that additional pitiful expansion without coming across as amateurishly orchestrated or forceful. So in these circumstances, as simple in shape and these tracks are, Coldplay hit the theme of loss and longing cleanly on the nail, while at the same time making some respectful strides in new sonic territory. Oceans, following soonafter, is a welcome Parachutes-friendly trip back to acoustic guitars prominence above a ping of electronic beats, but unfortunately this instance proves less efficient with the sheer lack of aesthetic after-touch and overall development when compared to the album's middle section of introspection.

So on this, I have to admit - and without hesitance or even anything held back - that finding A Sky Full Of Stars, less existing but more laying wake on this album, is perhaps one of Coldplay's - and perhaps Martin's - gravest errors of decision. Whether it's down to the shallow horribleness of lyrics (and believe me, listening on first go, it won't be unique to someone to guess the corresponding rhyme on more than a few occasions), the congested bleeding of layering on production, or guest Avicii's bland pallette of drumbeats and synthesizers...it's by no means a startle, but given what we've experienced on the album - in both sonic and textural strength - it severely lacks in any overriding appeal or attraction that demands a second or third listen. But for anyone willing to pull themselves out the record's uncanny valley, O is quite the peak to reach, and a reminder again as to the willingness Martin can sometimes display when he removes himself from the showmanship mentality he's enforced for some time. Instead, a chilly sequence of piano keys gives the singer's hope of meeting his former lover again one more time, a lasting sense of wishful, but convincing, thinking. There remains that compressed layer of bass filling the void of space around, but for the most part it's an interesting send-off Martin (as a person) strives for. And given the cautiously-optimistic tone the arpeggios throughout evoke, it's comfort enough to end on.

And this is, of course, how most (if not all) Coldplay albums end, with cautious optimism that perhaps, somehow, the band can build on the strengths of their current efforts without relying heavily on their own commercial appeal to make their gamble sound and feel less like this solitary pillar they're balancing on. Ghost Stories however ends up less some stretched-out, shallow pandering to other genres, and if anything, generates fond reminders of a band having debuted some fourteen years ago with a record respectably encapsulating the warmth and immersiveness of acoustic song-writing. Arguably, there remains those moments where Chris Martin, both as a vocallist as well as a song-writer - demonstrates he never will be the best when it comes to such areas...and in some cases brings out the worst in his folly of display by marginalizing the rest of the band's presence. But despite this solo effort illusion, Ghost Stories takes from previous records' positives - a la X&Y's broadening out and Viva La Vida's measuring of ambition in exchange for consistency - and provides the remaining member's (Jonny Buckland especially, whose guitar work remains as important and affectionate as it's always been) with space to accompany. In effect, this is by far their best effort for some time; not meeting the benchmark set by their debut, but without question one of their most interesting, and by far most engrossing listens for someone more used to feeling disappointed then reappointed with being impressed. That three year gap suddenly doesn't feel as hospitable to take comfort in, as it once did.
~Jordan Helm


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Discovery: Coldplay - Ghost Stories
Coldplay - Ghost Stories
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