Most of the discourse surrounding this album will centre on Chris Martin’s recent divorce from Gwyneth…
Most of the discourse surrounding this album will centre on Chris Martin’s recent divorce from Gwyneth Paltrow. And while there are moments on the album that drift towards themes of heartbreak and loneliness, it never becomes more than just that: drifting. And so the discourse seems to emphasise the true disappointment of this album: its alarming lack of focus.
In truth, it was impossible to have expected Ghost Stories to be anything less than Coldplay’s “heartbreak album”. A plethora of artists have used this opportunity as a personal outlet: a natural catalyst for raw and vulnerable albums whose lyrics are littered with painful intimacy. Chris Martin is agonisingly conscious of these expectations of Ghost Stories, and his indolent response is to label every contiguously anticipated feeling. If there is heartbreak on the album, then it is there as an affectation.
It’s likely that Chris Martin’s place as the distinct executor of Coldplay’s success is somewhat overplayed, but on Ghost Stories he is the undeniable emotional anchor. He’s always had both a flair and propensity for grand romanticisms and universal aphorisms, which would be platitudinous if they were sung with any less grandiosity and surrounded by any less extravagance. So this lack of subtlety has never really been an issue for Coldplay; in fact, their lyrical pliability probably helped foster the immense likeability and relatablity that made them into The Biggest Band In The World. But on an album that’s supposedly more stripped-down, one that is so palpably manufactured as a self-styled bleeding catharsis for Martin, it becomes inescapable.
Reimagining the sound that made you famous is a precarious task for any artist – even fellow billboard entity Kanye West was asked to release his enigmatic 808s and Heartbreak under a pseudonym. This is by no means the first time Coldplay have attempted it: they did so with both Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends and Mylo Xyloto. But those albums were really just fluctuations – this is the first time the change of structure is truly palpable. And it feels like the moment that they may have finally jumped the shark.
Ghost Stories’ sonic landscape is intended to mirror the gravity of its lyrics, but it fittingly reflects their monotony instead. It is here that some measure of consistency of production could have endeavoured to save the album. Jon Hopkins’ criminally underappreciated partnership with King Creosote, Diamond Mine, was a lesson in the potency of minimalist production. And his skill in sculpting songs so as to accentuate the powers of their singer is in unspoiled display on Ghost Stories’ best moment, ‘Midnight’. Perhaps tellingly, it is made up of only ten lines, all of which are muffled by the fluid vocal effects that Hopkins shapes the song with. Like all the best Coldplay songs, the lyrics become peripheral to the ambiance that they and Martin’s falsetto create.
The same, however, cannot be said for the efforts of fellow co-producers Timbaland and Avicii. The former put his hand to ‘True Love’, a song whose bassline comes off as a cheap electronic imitation of “Every Breath You Take” – perhaps played through disjunctive karaoke-bar speakers. Although if we’re extending that metaphor, this is no early evening whisky-tinged parody: it’s full-blown 3am drunken imitation. And this time its lyrics are ominously unavoidable, whether the cringe-worthy “So tell me you love me/If you don´t then lie/Lie to me” or the unabashedly plucked “And I wish you could have let me know/What’s really going on below”. While it’s hardly the first time Leonard Cohen’s lyrics have been appropriated, it might be the most discernible. Equally shameless, although in a different sense, is the Avicii co-worked “A Sky Full of Stars”. It is a song whose title would not have felt out of place on X&Y, but whose forthcoming legacy of fist-bumping and woo-girling would make even “Speed of Sound” squirm in its seat.
And yet, the failings of this album cannot be deflected too far from Chris Martin himself. The paucity of either significance or substance in his lyrics fails this album in a way they never have before it. The better half of the double-edged sword that is the facileness of their lyrics is that Coldplay have been soundtracking their listeners’ heartaches for over a decade now. And for once, Ghost Stories was meant to be the depiction of Martin’s own misery. Instead, that sword turned on itself: it is an album about being broken hearted without a hint of heartbreak.