Ghost Stories is a breakup album, but it’s also a Coldplay album. “Call it magic/ Cut me into two,” Chris Martin sings amidst the iridescent churn of lead single “Magic,” presumably referencing the excruciating pain that accompanied his much-publicized “conscious uncoupling.” But before the song is even over, he’s declaring, “Still believe in magic/ Yes I do,” as if appalled that you would even ask. “Of course I do.”
Of course he does. We’re dealing with Martin, our generation’s foremost earnest arena-rock balladeer, the man who never met a chord progression he couldn’t turn into a Hallmark greeting. His entire career rests on the premise that magic exists and that it sounds like the stars shining for you. So even though almost every song on Ghost Stories seems to directly reference the end of Martin’s marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow, the album isn’t drowning in despair a la Blood On The Tracks or any of the myriad breakup records where the darkness is so profound you can’t imagine it ever lifting. This is a deeply wistful album, a thoughtful reflection on how Martin ended up with a broken heart, but it’s less the sound of wallowing than working through pain and waving goodbye. It is hopeful, if only because a Coldplay album without hope is a contradiction in terms.
Given the circumstances, the subject matter here is darker and more personal, a far cry from Mylo Xyloto’s semi-ridiculous narrative about love conquering all. Martin begins the album singing about not being able to sleep because he’s so possessed by the memory of what he’s lost. On “Ink,” he gets a tattoo as a way of grasping at that fading connection. He lashes out at his lover’s alleged lies on “True Love” even as he strains to bring back the old feelings: “And I wish you would have let me know/ What’s really going on below/ I’ve lost you now, you’ve let me go/ But one last time/ Tell me you love me.” But by the time Ghost Stories gets around to its big finish, Martin is proclaiming that he doesn’t mind being torn apart on the better-to-have-loved-and-lost anthem “A Sky Full Of Stars.” Closing track “O” functions as a comedown and an open ellipsis, the sound of our wounded protagonist imagining a future when he can finally move forward. He isn’t there yet, but he’s entertaining the possibility.
The sounds they’ve conjured to communicate these sentiments are not always immediately recognizable as Coldplay. The band has long since broken free of the Radiohead comparisons that dogged their early years, having taken a right turn at U2 and somehow ended up duetting with Rihanna. But the Kid A references began moments after Ghost Stories hit the internet yesterday, and they’re not entirely crazy. Again, this band is never going to capture the alienation and paranoia Thom Yorke was channeling at the dawn of the Bush administration, but there are times when Coldplay seem to have gone back and attempted to pick up where they left off, trading the cuddlier version of ’90s Radiohead we heard on Parachutes and A Rush Of Blood To The Head for a cuddlier version of postmillennial Radiohead. The songs are encased in a digital exoskeleton, often with busy programmed snare skitters seemingly culled from Yorke’s beloved late-’90s IDM, that meshes with guitars and keyboards to form bleary sonic horizons and warm electro-organic grooves. There’s a general cloud of malaise hovering over the music that had floated out of the picture entirely on the buoyant and bombastic Mylo Xyloto. Somber finale “O” even has an ethereal callback secret track at the end a la Kid A closer “Motion Picture Soundtrack.”
That said, to belabor the Radiohead thing any further would be a disservice to Coldplay and to you. For one thing, there are plenty of other familiar ingredients in play throughout Ghost Stories: Sigur Rós and James Blake are probably more appropriate parallels for the gorgeous celestial drift that is album opener “Always In My Head.” Single-of-the-year candidate “Magic” carries echoes of the xx. And yes, the LP-demarcating “Midnight” still sounds unmistakably like Bon Iver. More importantly, despite all its callbacks to the past 15 years of electronically infused post-rock, Ghost Stories feels like the arena-rock album of the future. Paul Epworth, best known for producing Adele’s unflinchingly retro 21, here reminds us he is also a master of ushering classic sounds into forward-thinking frameworks (see: Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm, Friendly Fires’ “Jump In The Pool,” Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”). Epworth has some assistance: Timbaland shows up to add “Apologize”-style schmaltz to “True Love,” and the French electronic producer Madeon contributes atmospheric touches to the not-particularly-electronic “Always In My Head” and “O.” Most obviously, the polarizing Avicii collab “A Sky Full Of Stars,” which functions as the album’s climax, successfully grafts Coldplay’s old-fashioned breed of festival-killing splendor into today’s prevailing euphoric thump.
But Ghost Stories often goes a step beyond boilerplate dance-pop into what’s becoming known as “post-EDM,” in which the mainstream electronic dance music that has proliferated for the past half-decade no longer functions as a novelty but as a natural part of the atmosphere. Even when all but the essentials are stripped away on “Oceans,” an acoustic ballad that could almost pass for a Parachutes outtake, the strums are punctuated by computerized blips that sound like OS errors. The sound feels like a natural progression from Mylo Xyloto, but also a retreat from that album’s gaudy concept and translucent neon bombast. Those wild flashes of color have mostly given way to muted tones, the maximal production pared back into something relatively spare. (Hey, if Yeezus can pass for minimalism, Ghost Stories can too.) Creatively, Martin’s breakup couldn’t have come at a better time; after scaling the heights of cartoonish rock opera, where else could they turn but inward?
Coldplay are well into their second decade by now, and as they’ve journeyed from coffeehouse alt-rock toward the center of the musical universe, they’ve arguably become more adventurous, not less. Ever since they steered out of the rut that was 2005′s X&Y with the creative renaissance of 2008′s art-damaged Viva La Vida, they’ve been challenging notions of what an arena-rock band can be without forgoing the pop instincts that got them there. They still take cues from their forebears, but the band’s last three albums are all unique creations unto themselves, far more inspired and in step with modern life than, say, the collection of Stop Making Sense and Zooropa retreads their would-be peers Arcade Fire released last year. Ghost Stories has its drawbacks — the drum programming can be intrusive, and the attempt at a mournful guitar solo on “True Love” feels both out of place and out of tune — but on the whole, the album is a further testament to Coldplay’s unheralded greatness, another knockout punch from a band that has too often been reduced a punchline. Martin may not have realized what a good thing he had until it was gone; let’s not make the same mistake.
Ghost Stories is out 5/19 on Parlophone/Atlantic. Stream it here.