In Brief: Modern day electronica-leaning Coldplay meets the “too meek and mellow to be bothered with a full-length album” Coldplay of olden times. I like the more ambient take on a stripped-down sound, but this album could use a little more meat on its bones.
It’s been a while since I reviewed an album in the same month it came out. I used to be all about covering any major new release that interested me within a week or so of it hitting the shelves, but as time went by, I realized I’d rather take my time and pay closer attention and know the details pretty well by the time I sat down to write about it. I chuckle at myself now for having the gumption to title my review of Coldplay‘s second album “A Rush of Fingers to the Keyboard” and act like it was some badge of honor to get a review out the door on pretty much the day it was released. Sometimes you have to sleep on these things for a while to get a better sense of what they’re about. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends and Mylo Xyloto, thus far my favorite two records in the Coldplay discography, were more like that for me. But now they’ve dropped such a startlingly brief new release on us called Ghost Stories, which I feel like I’ve become incredibly familiar with over the course of a mere two weeks, because the darn thing is so short and so single-minded in its lyrical content that it hasn’t taken a whole lot of effort to give each track my full attention.
Now I’m just gonna get this old chestnut out of the way up front, because I’ve had this argument before with folks who really liked Radiohead‘s The King of Limbs or Grizzly Bear‘s Shields, both albums with a fair amount of promising material that just didn’t have enough material to push my personal opinion of them from “Hmmm.” to “Wow!” I’m not saying that quantity equals quality. Coldplay actually had the opposite problem on X&Y, still by far the most difficult of their albums for me to slog through in a single listen. I should probably be grateful that they’ve learned to cut some dead weight from their track listings. But when an artist goes and pulls the “concept album” gimmick, as if to say that this exact set of songs goes together as a fully-realized work and inserting anything else would ruin the unified feel of it, and then they go and tack bonus tracks onto the super-duper-fanboy-special-edition version of the album that are actually better than some of the album material, I get a bit suspicious. When one of the cut songs is the freakin’ title track of the album, I get downright cynical. You’re gonna put this one out at full album price and then let the label charge us more for stuff that should have been on it in the first place? That’s a far cry from the Coldplay that had a remarkably satisfying collection of 10 tracks on Viva la Vida, and yet still showed enough creative drive to throw some hidden songs into the margins, which for me enhanced that album a great deal. I suppose you could say that short albums are no surprise for Coldplay given how they started off with Parachutes, which only really has nine songs due to its title track being more of an interlude. And that album’s about as long time-wise as this one. Still, I hold the band to a higher standard nowadays, as they’ve moved on to bigger and better things than their meek origins. A mellow album, I can handle. It’s actually refreshing, coming from a band that usually aims to take over the world with every new thing they put out. A mellow album that abruptly drifts off into silence well before it seems like it ought to… well, that’s more of a teaser. And Ghost Stories is pretty darn intriguing as teasers go… but it never feels like I’m getting a full picture.
At this point you probably know the backstory behind this album. You don’t even have to know who Chris Martin is to recognize the phrase “conscious uncoupling”, which was famously thrown around by his ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow and every gossip columnist, late night host, and smartass like me in the wake of their divorce hitting the tabloids. Unsurprisingly, this makes for a rather lonely-sounding breakup album. What’s surprising about it is that Coldplay has managed to take a lot of the electronic fiddling around they did on Mylo Xyloto and strip it back to more of an intimate, soul-baring level. Instead of broad anthems full of color and encouragement, this album’s dusky hues allow it to probe the feeling of those sleepless nights spent adjusting to having the house all to yourself, and in many cases they don’t do this with the expected Coldplay sound as the soundtrack. We’re three albums out from Coldplay mostly dropping the “plodding piano ballad with guitars ringing out every quarter note” stereotype that caused seemingly everyone to want to imitate them for a while there, and while most of their “experiments” are really more pastiches of more inventive bands they’ve digested and regurgitated in more chart-friendly form, I never quite know what sort of pastiche I’m gonna get on a given song. At worst, it leads to semi-compelling R&B-type ballads that make me wonder what the heck drummer Will Champion was doing for most of this album, but that intrigue with unusual background ambiance. At best, it leads to an expansion of the Coldplay sound into genres I’d have never assumed they would touch a mere five years ago. With one somewhat jarring exception, the songs on this album aren’t there to sink massive hooks into your brains. But their melodies and textures haunt me nonetheless, and that’s why I still feel positively about this album overall, despite my misgivings about what seems like a prematurely aborted creative process. Honestly, they sound like they were just getting warmed up with this one. Ghost Stories could have been so much better, but if you’re willing to be more patient with it than you might normally be with one of their poppier albums, and especially if you’re one of the folks who liked them better on Parachutes than when they started swinging for the fences on every subsequent album, then you might just hear some echoes of the Coldplay you’ve found yourself wishing they could be more often.
1. Always in My Head
The album opens with the sounds of a ghostly choir serenading us. I like this – it leaves you unsure of what to expect from the song and the album overall. Once the band starts the song proper about the 30 seconds in, it feels a lot like the sort of briskly-moving, heartfelt ballad that might have been a sleeper hit in the back half of one of their other albums – certainly melodic, certainly compelling, but coming across as more of a series of elliptical thoughts than as a well-defined statement with an obvious refrain. The electronic thump of the drum loop and the wispy guitars certainly suggest an attempt to avoid their usual anthemic tendencies. Chris Martin’s lyrics are at their simplest, as they are for most of this album, stating that his lover is gone but not forgotten, her specter hanging over his sleepless nights as he continues to hunger for what he can no longer have: “My body moves, goes where I will/But though I try, my heart stays still/It never moves, just won’t be led/And so my mouth waters to be fed.” The song comes to a cold stop at what I would expect to be its bridge, and while I respect the band for not always scratching that “big climactic finale” itch, it does feel a bit incomplete, like more of an intro than a full-fledged song.
Remember how we all reacted upon first hearing Muse‘s “Madness”, which drastically stripped back the group’s usual bombastic rock tendencies in favor of a minimal R&B-type ballad that didn’t open up until way late in the song? There was like, rioting in the streets or something. I came to absolutely adore that song, but it took time. My initial reaction to this one was so similar that for a little while, I actually suspected Coldplay of trying to use that exact same template. (The similar titles and positioning as track #2 on the album certainly didn’t help.) But to be fair, there are some slightly different ingredients in play here – the basis of this song is a bass melody that Guy Berryman came up with, rather than a vocal sample, and while the programmed drum loop is suspiciously similar, the song goes for a different climax, finally bringing in the strumming acoustic guitars and layering on a bit more ambiance, but not going for full drums and guitar solo like Muse did. It’s different enough, and I’ve come to really love it, but I’m not ready to say it’s at that same level of ingeniously defying fan expectations that Muse achieved. At first glance, it’s another one of those woe-is-me-I-can’t-get-over-you songs, sounding like a huge wall of cliches at first due to Martin’s belief that the moments he and Gwyneth shared were magical, but eventually coming around to a compelling observation that even though he’s had his heart broken, it doesn’t diminish his memory of the good times they shared or his belief that “true love” exists. Which is corny, but I think it takes a special amount of gumption to still hold onto that belief when you’ve been dumped by the woman you spend well over a decade with, so I’ll call this one a win.
This, the most up-tempo thing on the album so far due to its snapping-and-popping percussion loop, almost feels like the sort of thing I might have heard in the early 90s, from a crooning singer/songwriter trying to sound a little more “urban” for radio purposes without getting too down-and-dirty into the “B” side of R&B. The premise of this one is that ill-advised permanent decisions such as getting a tattoo with your lover’s name or a statement like “together through life” on it can really sting when those sentiments turn out to not be so permanent later on. It’s stated with a fair amount of painful cliches (seriously, the phrase “I love you so” ought to be a square in a Coldplay Bingo game or something), but it’s a triumph in the keyboard-driven rhythmic pop department, so my feelings on this one work out to somewhere above average, at least compared to the disaster that it could have been as a more conventional Coldplay ballad.
4. True Love
I’ve been somewhat patient, even open-minded, with Coldplay’s use of electronic drums and keyboard presets thus far. Mylo Xyloto probably set the stage well enough for that stuff not to bug me here. But this ballad – one of the record’s most heartbreaking – wasn’t done any favors in the production department. It has a plodding, bump-bump-snap type of R&B rhythm that feels played out due to the fact that we’ve heard absolutely no real drums that I can recall at any point on the album thus far, and its keyboard sound and predictably canned strings land it somewhere between 1980s Christian radio and The Care Bears Movie. It’s a shame, because this could have been on the level with “Fix You” or “The Scientist” if the band had played their cards right. Chris Martin’s falsetto milks a simple but effective phrase for all it’s worth in the chorus: “Tell me you love me/If you don’t, then lie.” I love how he’s not saying anything terribly complex here, and yet that one phrase reveals the myriad of screwed-up emotions that a guy getting the rug pulled out from under him when the love of his life and the mother of his children decides to say “sayonara” would probably feel. He clearly wishes he could have taken the blue pill in this situation. At one point Jonny Buckland throws in a rather surprising guitar solo, which comes across like the sound of a police siren against the otherwise tranquil backdrop.
Even being told that this album was heavily electronic, this highly experimental piece still comes from way out of left field. Releasing it in advance of the album – not as a “single” per se but as a sneak preview – may have been a brilliant way to throw fans off of the scent, or it may have been a total marketing blunder. There’s really nothing radio-friendly about this one – it’s driven by monotonous, machine-like sounds, it’s got no percussion to speak of, Chris’s vocals are heavily drenched in AutoTune (which means that by law, you must compare this song to Bon Iver upon first hearing it), there’s more of a trance-like mantra than an actual chorus, conventional Coldplay instrumentation such as the piano tends to get buried underneath all of the layers of sound, and the only “climax” to speak of is when the pretty artificial sounds briefly erupt into a scribbly, rave-like aerobic session near the end. I can’t even understand most of what’s being sung here, aside from the refrain “Leave a light on”. And you know what? It’s friggin’ BEAUTIFUL. One of the best things this group has ever recorded. I wouldn’t want this to be Coldplay’s default sound, because it would get old quick. It’s the surprise of the song being so out-of-character for the band, and their complete commitment to seeing that experiment through and not reverting back to their expected tropes midway through, that make it special.
6. Another’s Arms
Going back to the more conventional, downbeat, R&B/pop style that this album has settled on almost makes “Midnight” feel like an unfair tease. but this one stands out a bit from the pack due to its ethereal female vocal samples, its slow but strong rhythm track, and its somewhat darker sound. Chris is singing in his lower register for most of this one, like he did in “Yes” on Viva la Vida, and similar to that song, the feeling of being defeated and needing to numb the pain comes across quite strongly. The somewhat mechanical nature of it strikes a good balance between “palatable radio ballad” and “strange and off-putting sad sack song” – despite how easily he turns to the arms of another, he can’t shake the feeling of how special if felt to have that one perfect woman’s body and soul rubbing up against his own. While the song is sexual in nature, it really seems to be about how sex in and of itself can’t make up for all of the other things he loved about that relationship that are now missing from his life.
Here, a refreshingly organic song centered around an acoustic guitar strumming in minor key immediately brings me back to the summer of 2001, when I was trying to wrap my head around Parachutes while nursing my own wounded ego after a particularly rough breakup. (Though two and a half years with a college sweetheart can’t really hold a candle to losing a 10+ year marriage. Still, that was my measuring stick for total heartbreak at the time.) “We Never Change” pretty much defined the “sleeper hit” aspects of Coldplay’s sound for me at the time, and it’s still a frequently overlooked highlight that I find myself returning to again and again. Electronic elements are still present here – mostly notably a serious of bubbly notes that act as a sonar ping against the murky depths of emotion that Martin is trying to fathom here. I won’t pretend that there’s a ton of depth to the lyrics – basically he’s still holding out some hope for reconciliation with the woman who left him, at some unspecified future date when he’s changed in the way that she needs him to and she can “Meet me in blue sky, meet me again in the rain”. The song sleepily fades into a hazy interlude, over which church bells can be heard ringing out in the distance. I get a weird mental picture of a man slumped over drunk on his sofa, watching his wedding video over and over again, and feeling sorry for himself, until it’s quite suddenly interrupted by…
8. A Sky Full of Stars
WHOOSH! Suddenly it’s like we’ve hopped into a time machine and zoomed right on back to 2005, maybe stopping to pick up a few techno tricks from 2011 along the way. The larger-than-life, pounding piano melody is the sort of thing you’d recognize as Coldplay within seconds even if you were completely unaware that they had anything new out. Then it sort of fades off into the distance, as if to play tricks with your expectations – but make no mistake, this one’s as upbeat and hopeful and greeting-card-ready as Coldplay song comes. They’ve just applied a bit of a “club remix” type feel to their usual sound, giving us a mix that’s slightly more sparse than the typical entry on Mylo Xyloto, but still ready to pack out an arena with cheerily waving glowsticks. But then the electric guitar is right there when it’s needed, revving up the energy right along with the Candyland synths, so it’s an intoxicating mix. The question has been asked many times about this song, “What does it mean for someone to be ‘A sky full of stars’?” but I don’t think it requires that much brainpower to figure it out. Chris Martin has always worn his total admiration of the woman he loves on his sleeve, and here she may as well be the cosmos that he’s pleading to for a chance at redemption. His pining comes across as more of a celebration of her “heavenly view, and depending on your outlook on the silly things we do for love, you’ll find it either disgusting or adorable that he’s so devoted to the worship of this ideal woman, he’s willing to let her tear him apart so that he can die in her arms. Cliched ultimatums abound here… but the song is so much fun and such a welcome break from the doldrums that I can’t help but get swept up in it. It’s essentially “Every teardrop Is a Waterfall” rebranded for 2014. That might be a problem if I didn’t love “Waterfall” so stinkin’ much.
This very pretty, almost classical-leaning, piano ballad closes the record in a way that I’m relieved to say doesn’t sound like the typical Coldplay ballad. It’s sweet and understated, and I really enjoy it for that, even if I’m distracted by the fact that it only constitutes about half of this tracks nearly eight-minute run time (yeah, some bands still believe in the “hidden track” in this digital age where such things tend to lead to disappointment far more often than they lead to pleasant surprises). if Martin’s waxing poetic about a flock of birds circling in the sky sounds like deja vu, that’s probably because Mylo Xyloto ended on “Up with the Birds”, though compositionally this is a much simpler song. Here, the birds are a metaphor for a love whose time has come to leave him, and he’s come to some sort of peace with it, as if to say that just because love doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it wasn’t true or life-changing. His final prayer is that “Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you.” It’s sad, but at least he’s wishing her well rather than bitterly ranting about all the ways that she did him wrong or whatever.
After a few minutes of silence, there’s a brief postlude that brings back the choir from the intro to “Always in My Head”. I generally appreciate when an artist “bookends” their album in such a manner, though they don’t really do anything surprising or satisfying with it (unlike how “The Escapist” nicely closed the book on Viva la Vida’s “Life in Technicolor”). There’s this androgynous, echoing voice coming to the forefront that makes it sound more like a throwaway track from an M83 album. Anyway, I’m too distracted by how pissed I am that the album is over so soon to really care.
All Your Friends
We’re back in R&B ballad mode here – does anyone other than me think it might be a decent idea to get this guy some more prominent backing vocalists if he’s going to be singing this kind of music? Anyway, I can sort of see why this song was cut from the album, since despite its slow, silky melodies, it’s really more of a depressive song about losing ties with the friends who inevitably choose sides and “open fire” on one or both of them when a couple splits up. Tonally, it’s different from songs like “Another’s Arms” that might initially seem to have a similar “slow-jam” pace and texture. I only suggest putting it back on the album because there’s not much to the album, and it would certainly be no less jarring than some of the odd asides that made the cut for Mylo Xyloto. Also, I really like the synth/piano solo in the middle of the song. It’s subtle, but pretty.
This is the one that I’m really mad they cut. It’s definitely more rock-oriented than the rest of the album, but its lead instrument is the acoustic guitar, so it does this in an understated way, kind of like “Major Minus” on their previous album, though a bit more understated and less manic. Once it gets going, it’s got one of Chris’s best vocal performances and an incredibly compelling chorus melody that laments, “Every time I try to pull you close, you disappear!” The delivery of that single word, “disappear”, would be an iconic Coldplay moment if they hadn’t buried this song within the “bonus tracks”. I enjoy how this one combines the acoustic/electric of their early days with some of the electronic ambiance of their more recent work… it’s a Coldplay retrospective in a single song. Stick this one after “Another’s Arms” in the track listing, and I think it would work perfectly, fading out on that last desperate “Disappear!” and plunging into the bleakness of “Oceans”.
What the hell even is this? All they did was repurpose the hidden track that originally came after “O”, cutting out the choral reference to “Always in My Head”, but keeping the ghostly, wordless lead vocal. It was already a bit out of context the first time. Did we really need an alternate take on this one?
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Always in My Head $1
True Love $.50
Another’s Arms $1.25
A Sky Full of Stars $1.75
All Your Friends $1
Ghost Story $1.50
O (Reprise) $0
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACKS: $13.75
Chris Martin: Lead vocals, piano, organ
Jonny Buckland: Guitar, backing vocals
Will Champion: Drums, backing vocals
Guy Berryman: Bass, backing vocals