“It’s hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain,” Bob Dylan said of his elegantly savage break-up album, Blood On the Tracks. Some Coldplay fans may feel the same about Ghost Stories.
Its thunderous marketing befits the band whose releases once determined EMI’s share price. But there is no “Fix You” here. Chris Martin’s response to his “conscious uncoupling” from wife Gwyneth Paltrow is the most dour, muted music of Coldplay’s career. In many ways, it’s just what they needed.
Coldplay’s crippling flaw as a major band has always been Martin: decent but unexceptional, with an enviable sense of melody, but capable only of superficially healing songs. The split with Paltrow has usefully sharpened his writing. Now, it draws blood.
Ghost Stories is a concept album, following a person’s path from the rending pain of separation to its acceptance. It is bracketed by grandiose choirs, but Martin’s words in “Always In My Head” have depression’s flat truth: “I think of you/ I haven’t slept/ I think I do/ But I don’t forget.”
His voice has a faint crack, as if events have rubbed it raw. After Eno’s work on Mylo Xyloto, more high-profile producers have been flung at these songs.
Jon Hopkins helps “Midnight”’s deepening dance beat, like a too rapid pulse, and Martin’s vocodered, skittish singing. Warm Eighties AOR synths, recalling The Police or Toto, grow into “A Sky Full of Stars”’s climactic club keyboards.
Mostly, though, this is music that keeps its head down. Martin accepts his loss too meekly to approach the anguish of a great break-up album. A step away from grand platitudes is still one in the right direction.
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