Earlier this year, Coldplay crept mysteriously back into our lives with the ambient and haunting promotional track Midnight. It was an understated announcement – the very opposite of their halcyon, Mylo Xyloto époque of high-tech arena tours and upbeat tunes. As always, of course, there was division: some marvelled at Midnight’s rave-like climax, whilst others despaired, convinced that their much loved, human sound had been replaced by over-the-top production, turning Chris Martin into a sort of electronic werewolf howling at the moon. Regardless though, Coldplay were back – and for real fans, that was all that mattered.
After Midnight came Magic, a chilled-out, seemingly simple tune that soon came to be an anthem of sorts for Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ that same month. “And I just got broken / Broken into two / Still I call it magic / When I’m next to you” took on a whole new meaning and, before we knew it, Ghost Stories was released, dangerously blurring the artistic and the personal.
So, beneath all the headlines and the drama, what of the music? Ghost Stories, Coldplay’s sixth studio effort, is their shortest album to date and noticeably stripped-back to boot. It is…sparse, full of echoes and silence, the ringing of bells and the sound of waves giving way to a smooth transition between tracks such as Ocean and O. After the heavy, fast-paced production on Mylo Xyloto, this is clearly a sound that Coldplay were keen to achieve. It’s also evidence of Coldplay’s standing as a band; after so much success, they have the creative freedom and the confidence to go back to their roots if they choose, switching from an EDM sound to something simpler, more mellow, all in the space of one album.
Despite the hype, Ghost Stories is not necessarily a heartbreak album – at least not in the typical sense. Sure, Mila Fürstová’s artwork for the album may depict a heart shaped pair of wings, within which one can see a lookalike of Ms Paltrow embracing her lover. And, yes, even the seemingly upbeat True Love is deceiving, as Martin discusses the darker moments of a relationship beneath Timbaland’s signature drum beat. But overall, Ghost Stories is more about optimism than mourning. There is a sense of closeness between the band members as they strum in harmony on ‘Ink’, supporting Chris as though in a jamming session.
The euphoric A Sky Full of Stars, meanwhile, is the very essence of positivity – the embodiment of the quote that accompanies the album: ‘Suffering teaches sweet understanding’. Coldplay go in pretty deep on Ghost Stories, then, but that’s not anything new. In a recent interview, bassist Guy Berryman admitted that he initially feared Chris Martin was revealing too much on the album. Another’s Arms certainly puts things into the open, but we shouldn’t overlook its pleasingly melancholy vocals – it’s a strong, universal break-up song.
In the same vein, Midnight, a genius feat of raw emotion mixed up in Jon Hopkin’s trance production, ranks top as the darkest track on the album. Yet even as you lose yourself to the laser-harp rave sequence of this song, it feels like Coldplay could have gone even further here; the emotion that they usually deliver, in highs and lows, should have been prolonged – they’re on the cusp of perfection.
Midnight aside, A Sky Fall of Stars is the next stand-out song on Ghost Stories. A collaboration between Chris Martin and Tim Bergling (otherwise known as 25 year old EDM legend, Avicii), it delivers Coldplay piano-chords, jubilant choruses and that drop by the bucket load. A summer hit, no doubt, that will please hard-core fans and lovers of house music alike.
As a whole, there may well be quite a lot of experimentation on Ghost Stories, but the album is still very Coldplay. Listening to it, you could say that it’s a soothing collection of music, something to play come night-time. Take ‘soothing’ as you will: both for those who will pine for Chris Martin as they listen to it, and for the many who will take the music for what it is and let it accompany their own lives. Heartbreak record or not, it’s just good to know that, whatever happens, Coldplay will always be a constant.