Coldplay’s Ghost Stories highlights band’s struggles

When Coldplay announced that its latest album would be entitled Ghost Stories, it was intriguing. After all, truly great ghost stories excite the imagination and keep people up at night. Coldplay’s Ghost Stories are not these kinds of stories. Unfortunately, the only person losing sleep in Ghost Stories is lead singer Chris Martin. At its best, the latest effort from the band is eminently listenable and emotionally evocative — but the vast majority of the tracks could also cure insomnia.

The album’s artwork — an image of two wings suspended over water — is better viewed from a distance, where it looks like the shape of a heart “consciously uncoupled” down the middle. Such heartbreak is the concept album’s thesis.

On first listen, you will want to love Ghost Stories. Because for all of its tragic, timeless (and tragically timeless) themes of heartbreak, for every cringe-worthy lyric Martin penned about estranged baby mama Gwyneth Paltrow (“And if you were to ask me / After all that we’ve been through / ‘Still believe in magic?’ / Yes, I do” on “Magic”), there’s a belief that the big “drop” is coming.

You will want to believe that the melancholy timbre that seems to open almost every track on the album will eventually blossom into a sonic boom of ominous electric guitar chords, cymbal crashes and Chris Martin straining his falsetto on a catchy chorus, like in 2000’s Parachutes. You will hope that Martin would find a way to muster a dry response to adversity, like in 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, or signify triumph with the saccharine optimism of 2011’s Mylo Xyloto. Barring one completely unwelcome instance of the latter, there will be no such luck.

Ghost Stories opens with “Always In My Head,” where dreamy synthesizers cut in with muffled voices murmuring nothing in particular — it’s a shaky start, and that’s what the band wants to get across conceptually. “Another’s Arms” gives the band a bit more footing. Instead of Coldplay’s tried and true verse-chorus-verse structure, the chorus is replaced by angelic, wordless female vocals. It’s one of the more solid tracks on the album.

But it’s the haunting single “Midnight” that best sums up this album’s musical aesthetic. Martin’s delicate crooning is contrasted by an Auto-Tune effect that contributes harmony and creates a sleepy, droning-robot effect reminiscent of a downtempo Bon Iver. “Leave a light on,” Martin harmoniously pleads over a humming bass and sparse synth staccatos. The entire track builds up to a noticeably restrained climax, where Jon Harper’s synths busily drive the backbeat. Martin abruptly cuts the festivities short, transitioning out with his Auto-Tuned voice again.

In spite of the glacial pacing and deeply personal lyrics on much of the album, Ghost Stories is not above self-indulgent pop-rock pandering. The Avicii-assisted penultimate track, “A Sky Full of Stars,” thrusts forward with an uplifting barrage of piano chords that build up to the EDM producer’s trademark stadium-size synth riffs. It’s the closest thing to an uptempo track on this record — and it’s completely out of place on Ghost Stories.

“Magic,” a sparse, acoustic foot-tapper, is driven by a boom-bap drum loop and proves pretty listenable. It also happens to be peppered with some of the band’s most insufferably simplistic lyrics. Lines like “Call it magic / When I’m with you / And I just got broken / Broken into two” are elementary even by Coldplay standards. Luckily where the band fails in writing, Martin succeeds rhythmically and vocally by the virtue of his excellent falsetto.

If Coldplay’s intent was to be a vehicle for the troubled Martin on Ghost Stories, it succeeds — this is easily the band’s most personal work, which for Coldplay isn’t saying very much. An emotionally fractured Martin stumbles into a misty forest of uncertainty and, over the course of nine tracks, emerges with a guarded acceptance of his circumstances.

Against the bombast of Mylo Xyloto, it’s certainly good to hear the old stripped-down Coldplay with some emotional depth again. And yet there’s no range in tactical dynamics here to contrastively highlight the band’s use of restraint; everything seems withdrawn and pensive, and the lyrics lack a confessional quality which would have comfortably suited the overall thematic direction. Chris Martin’s lyrics aren’t so much nebulous or intriguing as they are flat-out generic; and maybe that’s the problem. The album comes off as a 42-minute exclusive mea culpa to the lead singer’s estranged wife — it also just happens to function on its own legs as a breakup album.

Thankfully for Coldplay, change is the only true constant. Just as Ghost Stories was a departure from Mylo Xyloto, it’s reassuring to think the next album will be another similarly huge departure. Let’s just hope — for everyone’s sake — that the next album doesn’t involve another breakup.