Coldplay, “Ghost Stories” (Atlantic/Parlophone)
Coldplay’s sixth studio album is a confessional tell-all that doubles as a strategic career move.
You feel the strategy at work in the scale of the album, by some measure Coldplay’s smallest. At a moment when the band’s many inheritors are going as big as possible — think of Imagine Dragons’ collaboration with Kendrick Lamar at January’s Grammy Awards — Chris Martin and his bandmates are distinguishing themselves by taking the opposite tack, stripping away much of the bombast that once defined their sound.
On their previous album, 2011’s “Mylo Xyloto,” the musicians pumped up their songs: booming hip-hop beats; buzzing, old-school rave synths; duet vocals from Rihanna in the shimmering “Princess of China.”
In contrast, the nine songs on “Ghost Stories” hum gently, cultivating an effective sense of intimacy. As always, there’s a lot going on in the music, sculpted by the band along with such producers as Paul Epworth and Timbaland.
But the various acoustic and electronic elements here are layered with a delicacy that Coldplay hasn’t put across since its 2000 debut, “Parachutes.” A tidy guitar figure unfurls over a burbling beat in “Ink,” while “Oceans” shades a folky singer-songwriter arrangement with tasteful strings. “Magic,” the album’s soft-touch lead single, sounds like it was modeled after the xx, the rigorously minimalist English band; “Midnight” has traces of Bon Iver and James Blake.
And that Timbaland beat in “True Love”? It feels muffled, as though the band wanted a mere taste of his future-shock funk, not a full helping. Only “A Sky Full of Stars,” which Coldplay made with the Swedish DJ Avicii, works itself up to the kind of inexorable climax that became a Coldplay signature thanks to hits such as “Clocks” and “Viva la Vida.” The band then reverts to hushed piano-ballad mode for “O,” this album’s accepting sigh of a closer.
If Coldplay has cleverly set aside its trademark grandiosity, though, Martin is still flexing the emotional bravado for which he’s known. These are undoubtedly breakup songs (he and wife Gwyneth Paltrow “consciously uncoupled” this year), full of grim imagery and pitiful little details. There isn’t much palpable regret. Over and over, Martin presents himself proudly as the wronged party in a broken relationship, the man whose devotion never wavered in spite of whatever was encouraging him to bail.
In “Magic” he doesn’t “want anybody else but you,” even after being “broken into two.” Does he still believe in magic? “Of course I do,” he answers himself.
Martin ventures more fully into this noble victimhood in “True Love,” and on “Oceans” he practically licks his lips in anticipation of the heartbreak to come. It’s like he’s bragging about his sensitivity, projecting an inside-out swagger that keeps the music from feeling too sorry for itself.
Only Martin and Paltrow know if this version of their separation represents a true Hollywood story. But give him credit for somehow making his sad sack into an action hero.
Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times