Heartbreak can do some strange things to people. Heartbreak can do some especially strange things to musicians and the sound of their music. Just look at the litany of “breakup” records that stand out. Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love is a subtle and delicate affair when stacked against his usual stadium rock fare. Alanis Morrisette’s 2008 album, Flavors of Entaglement, saw her take her music in an entirely different direction, nearly unrecognizable to her fans. The newest entry in the hall of heartbreak is Ghost Stories from Coldplay. Largely comprised of sparse atmospherics, inconspicuous instrumentation and singer Chris Martin lamenting his lost love, Ghost Stories is one of the more surprising albums to come out this year.
When Coldplay released their debut album back in 2000, it was instantaneously clear that these guys would be sticking around for a while. Their sound was thoughtful enough to engage their listeners without ever overpowering them. As such, Parachutes went on to become a massive success and Coldplay became an indie rock juggernaut for years to come, the band a virtual factory for sing-a-long chorus and hooks that dig in and never let go. Ghost Stories however, offers only shades of their previous work. Gone are the massive songs of albums past, save for “Sky Full of Stars” the overblown collaboration with producer Avicii. Instead, Ghost Stories offers a much…quieter musical experience.
Album opener “Always On My Mind” sets the stage for what’s to come musically, with its subdued bassline and minimal electronic beat, the song doesn’t gain any steam throughout, but sits in a reflective atmospheric state. Likewise, the haunting “Midnight” is an intensely brooding affair, one that see’s Chris Martin borrow the vocal effect of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and employ it to great effect. It’s incredibly unfamiliar territory for Coldplay, but somehow, it works. Aside from the aforementioned (and ill-fitting) “Sky Full of Stars,” Ghost Stories rarely approaches the musical bombast of the bands more recent material maybe save “Ink” which employs a light, carefree musical counterpart to Martin’s overtures of regret.
While the musical portion of the album is the most subdued we’ve heard from the group, the real eye-opener on Ghost Stories is Martin’s lyrics. Nearly the entire record (again, maybe save the goofy “Sky Full of Stars”) is as personal as songwriting can get. Martin’s recent split with his longtime wife Gwyneth Paltrow was clearly the catalyst behind the songs on Ghost Stories. Thankfully Martin took the high road, not exposing his audience to a “he said/she said” diatribe that would cheapen the entire experience. Instead, opting to tell his story and feelings just how they existed. Granted his delivery sometimes leaves something to be desired, like the ending of the song “Magic” where he awkwardly croons “Do you believe in magic?/Yes I do/Of course I do.” Small gripes about presentation aside, Martin delivers a lyrical tour de force on Ghost Stories, being his most personal, intimate and quite frankly, saddest lyrics he’s ever written.
To say that Ghost Stories is one of the biggest surprises of the year would be an understatement. It’s delicate beauty and yearning for love make the album a truly unique and tender listening experience, especially when considering the grandiose outbursts that comprised Coldplay’s last few outings are nowhere to be found (again….for the fourth time….except for the awful “Sky Full of Stars.”) For Martin’s sake, we can only hope that his pain is temporary but thanks to the heartbreak he has suffered, the rest of us are treated to a satisfying and unpredictable album from one of the world’s largest bands.