There aren’t many artists in pop music today that are easier to dismiss out of hand than Coldplay. I know this because I spent the better part of a decade doing it myself, mercilessly mocking this band for their limp, wimpy attempts at arena rock. I’m not entirely sure why that was, since Coldplay’s ballad-heavy music has pretty much always been situated directly in my wheelhouse, but regardless of the reasoning, the fact remains that there is something about Coldplay that just makes people want to disparage them.
When I finally started to pull down my walls of mocking, mean-spirited indifference toward this band, I moved instead to skepticism. I saw the promise in certain songs on the band’s third album, 2005’s X&Y, but I also saw a lot of bloat, the stink of lofty ambitions that didn’t pay off. I was only slightly more taken with the band’s fourth full-length release, 2008’s Viva la Vida, an album that most people adored, but that I saw as a pale imitation of countless better bands, from U2 to Radiohead and beyond. There was promise on that album too, but it was lost somewhere under layers of stadium rock pretense and misplaced bombast, from the overbearing title track to the lyrically inept “Lost!”
On both of those albums, my favorite songs were the moments of breathing room amidst the larger-than-life proclamations. On X&Y, the highlight was “Til Kingdom Come,” a hushed folk-country song that was initially intended for Johnny Cash. On Viva, it was “Strawberry Swing,” a number that maintained the rest of the album’s wall-scaling guitar parts and anthemic vibes, but which was, at its core, a lilting summer folk ditty. In fact, I was so pleasantly surprised with the band’s smaller-scale sound that I remember writing an amateurish review for X&Y in 2005, mourning the fact that this band had gotten so huge when there was obviously something so human and magical about raw, modest tunes like “Til Kingdom Come.” I might have been alone, but I wanted my Coldplay smaller, not bigger.
Fast-forward nine years and it looks as if my wish has finally come true. Right from the dreamy soundscapes of opener “Always in My Head,” Ghost Stories is the quietest, smallest, least ambitious, and most strikingly human album Coldplay have ever made. The band doesn’t reach that point by going in a folk music direction, as I once expected they might, but instead by embracing electronic music in new ways. Similar blips and ambient passages appeared on the band’s last album, 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, captured there in the form of blatantly cheesy, inexorably fun pop music. Most fans hated the record, calling it the band’s worst and writing it off as a collection of filler material (ballads like “UFO” and “Up in Flames”) or sellout garbage (“Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” the most unapologetically Coldplayish song of all time). Surprisingly, I, the once-vehement Coldplay hater, loved both sides of the coin, and Mylo Xyloto stands today as my favorite Coldplay album. I suspect that I will go similarly against the grain on Ghost Stories, which has already been called out by critics and fans for being dull, cliché, and sappy.
Then again, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that I’m a fan of this album, since it’s the closest any artist has come to delivering a modern take on Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 classic, Tunnel of Love. On that particular album, Springsteen abandoned his previous heartland rock style for a dark trip into the doldrums of 80s pop. He also turned the record into an obvious solo outing, underusing the E Street Band in almost criminal fashion across the album’s 12 songs. And instead of singing universally relatable songs about everyman characters like he had on earlier records, Springsteen turned inward and wrote a record about his own experiences and about the emotions he was feeling as his marriage imploded. It was a dark, emotionally cutting record, and coming after the massively popular, moderately cheesy, and inexorably catchy Born in the U.S.A., it was a shock to the system of Springsteen fans everywhere.
Ghost Stories follows the Tunnel of Love template almost to a T, right down to the fact that it follows up a gloriously maximalist pop record in its creator’s discography. As the title betrays, this is a dark, spectral disc loaded with nighttime grooves and songs that rely more on mood and atmosphere than on hooks or stadium-sized arrangements. The only song here that would fit into the band’s arena tour set is “A Sky Full of Stars,” a swelling piece of EDM-influenced pop that was produced by current hot commodity Avicii (and obviously so, for how much it sounds like Avicii’s own “Wake Me Up”). The rest of the record, meanwhile, ups the ante on slow tempos, acoustic guitars, tinkling pianos, spacious ambient interludes, and Chris Martin’s appropriately ghostly falsetto.
In fact, just like Tunnel of Love was more or less a Springsteen solo LP, Ghost Stories feels more like a Chris Martin album than the next entry in the progression that spawned Viva la Vida and Mylo Xyloto. Guitarist Johnny Buckland gets few opportunities to let loose here, while there are entire songs that seemingly don’t utilize drummer Will Champion at all. Of course, Coldplay is no E Street Band, but the decision to completely discard what has been seen as the band’s wheelhouse in the past (big, bleeding heart choruses and titanic guitar echoes) is what ultimately makes Ghost Stories such a refreshing entry in the band’s catalog. For instance, fans who have been following the band since the beginning will love songs like “Oceans,” an unhurried number that bears more than a few similarities to acoustic slowdances like “Sparks” from Coldplay’s 2000 debut, Parachutes, while first single “Magic” manages an earworm chorus without ever breaking a sweat or compromising its chill façade.
The most obvious tie between Ghost Stories and Tunnel of Love, though, is that they are both break-up albums written in the final stages of a marriage. When he inducted Bruce Springsteen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, U2’s Bono ruminated briefly on the brilliance of Tunnel of Love, describing it as “a remarkable bunch of tunes where our leader starts having a go at himself and the hypocrisy of his own heart before anyone else could.” He continues: “But the tabloids could never break news on Bruce Springsteen, because as fans, he’d already told us everything in the songs.” Where Tunnel of Love chronicled Springsteen’s estrangement and divorce from actress and model Julianne Phillips, Ghost Stories is the soundtrack to the death of one of the most highly publicized (and scrutinized) celebrity marriages of the past 20 years, between Chris Martin and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Chris Martin didn’t get the chance to break the news about his failed marriage in his songs: Ghost Stories was still almost two months away when he and Paltrow announced their decision to separate. Still, the spirit of these tunes is the same as it was for Springsteen with Tunnel of Love. They’re introspective, downbeat, fragile things that show a titan of pop music at his lowest. “Tell me you love me; if you don’t then lie,” Martin begs on the chorus of centerpiece ballad “True Love.” On paper, it may just come across as another trite, overly sentimental Coldplayism from the same notebook that spawned lines like “tears stream down your face when you lose something you cannot replace,” but in context, it’s the sound of a man who has torn down every layer of pretense and self-defense separating himself from his fans. The song aches with hurt and longing, and by the time Buckland’s guitar solo breaks through the climax of the song, the delirium of heartbreak has become all encompassing. It’s one of the few moments on the album where the guitar is in the spotlight, but it’s not triumphant like you might expect. Rather, it’s broken. The notes clash and bleed against the rest of the texture, sounding like Marty McFly trying to play “Earth Angel” in Back to the Future, even as he’s about to cease existing. It’s one of this album’s many examples of a “less is more” mantra paying off in spades.
Ghost Stories is, unsurprisingly, a nighttime album, meant to be played in the moments when the light goes down and the world goes to sleep, leaving you alone to manage your reckless pain. Plenty of other records have played off this same thematic territory, from Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours to John Mayer’s Battle Studies, but when it’s done well, it never fails to resonate like a shot in the heart. You need companions on those nights when you feel like you may not survive to see daylight, and from “Always in My Head,” a highway drive through the dark heart of a dream, to the Jon Hopkins-assisted “Midnight,” which funnels Chris Martin’s voice through a vocodor for a desolate, Bon Iver-esque dose of hopelessness, this album is that kind of companion.
Make no mistake, these are songs meant to be played at 2 a.m., when you come home from a disastrous night and are too emotionally exhausted to do anything but sit in the dark and think. I haven’t had a night like that in a long time, but looking back at the most downtrodden evenings of my life, I can just imagine hearing the percussive haunt of “Ink” percolating through the speakers, or the broken-record choir on “Another’s Arms” taking up residence in some hitherto inaccessible part of my brain. The former might be the album’s harshest comedown, a song where the narrator gets a tattoo that says “Together Through Life” – only for the statement to prove false. The latter, meanwhile, is the album’s weakest song, but is an example of just how well this record’s seamless sequencing works to shoehorn the less essential moments into a broader emotional experience.
And indeed, “emotional experience” is the best way to describe this record. For the bulk of its runtime, Ghost Stories is one demoralizing heartbreaker after another, so much that it feels like the light is never going to break through the clouds. When echoes of wedding bells pierce through the texture during an interlude at the end of “Oceans,” surrounded by nightmarish layers of instrumental ambiance, you can almost feel Martin’s broken nostalgia for the marriage that, for whatever reason, had to end. It would be easy for the frontman to feel angry or indignant about the way things went, but then the interlude rushes headlong into “A Sky Full of Stars,” the album’s biggest, most grandiose musical statement, and things suddenly feel like they might be okay again.
Complaints have been made that “Sky” doesn’t fit the album’s tranquil mood; I’d argue that it not only fits, but is the core of the entire project, a cathartic, resplendent pop song about how life goes on after heartbreak and how the memories of the people you love or loved don’t have to be tainted or lost just because things didn’t work out. “And I don’t care, go on and tear me apart,” Martin sings, “Cause in a sky full of stars, I think I saw you.” Forget the fact that the hook here gives Martin’s acrobatic falsetto the best display it has ever had on record, or that the lush, dancefloor production was provided by a guy that most listeners feel some weird obligation to hate. This song is great because it somehow manages to find uplift in the dark, dingy maze of sadness that is the rest of Ghost Stories, and when coupled with the piano-looped resignation of “O” (“So fly on, ride through/Maybe one day, I’ll fly next to you,” Martin intones on the closer), it turns this album into the best and most complete thing that Coldplay have ever made. Some will deplore the record for its relative lack of pop appeal, but for a massively popular band that has so often been derailed by its own lofty ambitions, there is a huge pleasure in hearing something that succeeds on such a small, modest, and humanized scale.