Some four years ago, Coldplay were promising that their next album would be a stripped down, concept led piece of work – based on a love story with a happy ending – that would reinvent the band’s sound. Instead what we got was Xylo Mylo, the poppiest record of their career and one that took them to even greater commercial hights. It was, however, something of a sideways step following the superb Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. What makes you bigger doesn’t always make you better.
2014 and Coldplay are back, promising an album that will be a stripped down, concept led piece of work – based on a love story – that will reinvent the band’s sound. This time, though, it may well achieve its aims. Perhaps the key difference is that on this occasion the love story, as you may have heard, doesn’t have such a positive outcome. Still presented as a work of fiction, you don’t need to work that hard to join the dots.
Musically though (if not personally) Coldplay needed this. To re-make Xylo Mylo may have put a smile on their bank manager’s face but it also would, you suspect, have killed them as a creative unit. Instead, while Ghost Stories will surely lose them a proportion of their casual audience it should also see them safely into a new chapter.
It’s not a complete shock as ever since Brian Eno jumped on board they’ve been heading down a more experimental path, even bringing Jon Hopkins into the fold – hardly something you’d find any of their stadium colleagues contemplating. Eno is absent this time around and it’s Hopkins (along with Paul Epworth) who now seems to be their main sounding board, first amongst a string of unexpected producers on the record. Unavoidably the overall feeling is of emotion and sadness, with every song on the album dealing with the affairs of a broken heart. “I think of you, I haven’t slept. I think I do but I don’t forget” are the very first words you’ll hear and it doesn’t pick up mood wise much from that. As with everything that Coldplay do, those looking for a reason to pick holes will have a field day here – this is essentially the sound of one man bemoaning the breakdown of his relationship and, while it’s true you can find such an approach handled with more variety and imagination elsewhere in musical history, this is still a brave piece of soul bearing. Those that came before never had to deal with a tabloid feeding frenzy the moment they opened themselves up to the listening world.
Sonically, Ghost Stories is equally downbeat and asks the listener to invest more than a causal interest. Building from the scene setting ‘Always In My Head’, ‘Magic’ is one of the most recognisable ‘Coldplay’ moments on the record – a strong melody presented in a very subtle way. You feel that if it had featured on one of their previous records it would have been in a very different form. The surprisingly joyous ‘Ink’ recalls the easy going feel of ‘Strawberry Swing’, leading the album into a far darker middle section. It’s also perhaps where Ghost Stories falls down, needing a bit more grit amongst the smooth production. Jonny Buckland’s discordant guitar solo on ‘True Love’ helps a little and ‘Midnight’ has a lovely flow to it, but by and large it’s all a bit ambient for its own good.
Strangely enough, what you find yourself yearning for is a bit of the old Coldplay, something Chris Martin can skip across a stadium stage to. It arrives with the unlikely help of Avici, who gives ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’ an extra Euro-pop belt. Essentially a retread of ‘Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall’, it works in the context of the record as a whole. As does ‘Fly On’, a piano ballad that also harks back to their earlier work and brings the story to a close. If you’ve managed to invest in the emotion of it all, you might even find yourself dabbing your eye with a hanky.
And then, that’s it. The story of two lives uncoupling is done and dusted in the space of nine songs, forty odd minutes. Coldplay have managed to rein in the excesses of most bands of their status, losing something in the process but also gaining a new sense of purpose. Ghost Stories is far from perfect but out of adversity has emerged what may become the key record in the band’s history.