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Review: Coldplay, 'Ghost Stories'

Brent Faulkner Brent Faulkner
May 20th, 2014 10:37am EDT
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Coldplay, 'Ghost Stories'

On sixth album Ghost Stories, Coldplay opt for subtlety, mysteriousness, and restraint.

“I’m kind of a big deal.” That quote perfectly describes any album released by British alt-rock band Coldplay. Anytime the collective releases a new single or new album, you just know it is going to be huge news. Perhaps the only news that is on the same level as the quartet’s newest LP Ghost Stories is that of the separation between front man Chris Martin and his A-list actress wife Gwyneth Paltrow. What’s the connection between new album and breakup – well, Ghost Stories is all about a four-letter word – L-O-V-E. Maybe it’s coincidence, BUT one has to wonder how much marriage issues play a role on this album. Compared to Coldplay’s discography, Ghost Stories just may be the subtlest album of their career, seeming to think more minimally than maximally. Ultimately, it is another well put together affair, though likely won’t receives accolades for being the band’s best album.

“Always in My Head” opens Ghost Stories moodily and mysterious; the soundscape captures one’s attention, albeit with subtlety. After releasing the moodiness, a light groove enters in carried by the drums and six-eight meter gives the track stability. Martin’s vocals are clear, while lyrically there is nothing particularly abstract or higher level to note. Perfect examples include “I think of you / I haven’t slept…” or closing lyric “This, I guess is to tell you you’re chosen out from the rest…” A simple song it may be wholly, “Always in My Head” does establish the fact that Ghost Stories isn’t your typical Coldplay album; it is neither the extremes of recent masterpiece Viva La Vida nor is it exactly like pop-oriented Mylo Xyloto.

“Magic” establishes a groove from the onset, taking away some of the enigma that initiated “Always in My Head”. Subtlety remains the modus operandi for the band. In fact, subtlety and the gradual changes that characterized the minimalist movement in Classical music (1960s) play a role on this track. On this particular cut, that subtlety and pulling back works soundly for Coldplay. The utilization of space and pacing is also a pro here, aiding “Magic” in achieving the overall sound of something ‘magical’. Lyrically, there are some nice moments, though this cut is still no poetic tour de force: “And I just got broken / broken into two / still I call it magic / when I’m next to you”. But even with the rubs, Martin’s falsetto remains in play, and the intensification during the bridge section infuses more energy into the single overall.   

“Ink” sports a solid percussive groove once more, and the sound also possesses a pop-sensibility. Coldplay on both Mylo Xyloto and now Ghost Stories show their willingness to assimilate to trendiness in music. For a band of epic proportions such as themselves, this is both a blessing and curse. But anyways, on “Ink”, there is plenty to praise. The lightness of the track continues to bode well in the band’s favor, even if it’s the most quiet we’ve seen Martin and company.   Pacing continues to be in play, with a shorter second verse finding the front man singing louder and in his higher register compared to the first verse. The vocal production enhances Martin (sometimes he comes off as too nonchalant), while the bridge predictably showcases ‘growth’ but still feels incredibly poised and controlled. “Ink” still remains firmly invested in love, and as the title suggest, possesses a haunted, ghostly nature overall.

“True Love” (featuring Davide Rossi) opens with a driving synthetic sound, once more a clear influence of minimalism. Martin’s vocals continue to possess an airy quality that is smooth with a hint of coarseness.   Generally though, Martin eschews vocal grit and doesn’t play into the ‘power’ game (no dunks here!). The harmonic progression – particularly following the ‘makeshift refrain’ – is well conceived, once more playing into the title. “True Love” is pleasant as it should be, enhanced further by the lush strings and a truly thoughtful guitar solo with bended tones and some grit to contrast the more plush, luxurious sounds generally. Like true love can be itself, “True Love” the song is a bit self-indulgent considering you’re fulfilling that warm, fuzzy spot inside.

“Midnight” is arguably the most experimental track of Ghost Stories. It will appeal to the school who truly embraces more experimentation, while it may be off-putting to those who prefer a more traditional approach. Personally, “Midnight” offers a change of pace that isn’t perfect, but is a necessity to break up any sense of monotony given the script of Ghost Stories. The use of pitch correction (yep autotune) and vocal effects is shocking for old school Coldplay fans, but definitely matches the sentiment of this track and offers a different ‘look’. The lyrics are limited in quantity, given the music itself more of a forum. The building of the groove sounds danceable – is alt-rock supposed to be danceable? Follow up cut “Another’s Arms” is more traditional, relying on Coldplay’s knack for pop. Here, melody is the selling point, not to mention one of the heaviest grooves of the album. “Another’s Arms”, like everything else, fits within the script established by the band.

“Oceans” makes exceptional use of acoustic guitar. Falsetto is Martin’s ‘calling card’ here, as this particular song truly amps up the feeling of indulgence. “Meet me again / in the rain / in the rain”, Martin sings on one of the key lyrics. The addition of strings further adds to the indulgence and impassioned persona of this track. Like “Midnight”, the record is ambitious, which means it sacrifices a bit of stability and feels as if it going to ‘float’ rather than stay firmly planted. Like a couple of other joints from Ghost Stories, “Oceans” allow plenty of time for the instrumental music to unwind; it’s never in a rush. 

“A Sky Full Of Stars” has pop and EDM written all over it, period. While it may still be alternative rock’s answer to the pop trends of 2014, it still could’ve been executed by any number of artists/bands. That’s no shade, but “A Sky Full of Stars” isn’t ‘brand new’. What is a pro is that it sports more of a groove than “Oceans” did (contrast and stability), has specific songwriting sections (form), and most of all makes magnificent use of rhythmic acoustic guitar. Additionally, lyrically, the refrain is a shining moment: “I don’t care, go on and tear me apart / I don’t care if you do / ‘cause in the sky, ‘cause in a sky full of stars / I think I see you…” Yeah, it’s schmaltzy as albeit it, but it is semi-poetic, right?

“O” opens with piano that possesses a syncopated feel that establishes the groove and rhythm. Here, the focus seems to be the sky once more for Martin, as he sings “I always / look up to the sky / pray before the dawn / cause they fly always / sometimes they arrive / sometimes they fly on…” What is oddest about “O” is there are actually minutes of silence incorporated into the track before Coldplay officially close the final minute and half – go figure. As a closer, it definitely fits the billing of ‘ghost stories’ and the uniqueness of this Coldplay album stacked against previous work.

Ultimately, Ghost Stories is another solid Coldplay album. That said, reiterating an earlier point, it is arguably the most restrained effort that the band has produced up to date. Additionally, from a personal perspective, Ghost Stories wouldn’t be considered the band’s best either. Compared to Mylo Xyloto, in some respects, the more enigmatic Ghost Stories is a come-up. Then on the other hand, like Mylo Xyloto, it still seems as if Coldplay have been unable to match the high watermark that they achieved with critical, commercially adored darling Viva La Vida. Both Mylo and Ghost Stories also have big-time pop sensibilities. Viva La Vida was an edgy album, whereas Ghost Stories is the complete opposite, where the focus is pulling back. Analyses aside, merely evaluating Ghost Stories, it makes the grade.

Favorites:

“Magic”; “Ink”; “Oceans”

Verdict: ★★★½

Coldplay • Ghost Stories • Parlophone • US Release Date: May 19, 2014

Photo Credits: Parlophone


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