Ghost Stories

(Parlophone; 2014)

By Robin Smith | 21 May 2014

If you weren’t already aware, Coldplay are an “all I know” kind of band. They play with the simplest of juxtapositions: in lightness or in darkness, come rain or shine, and nothing in between. As far as big album release events go, watching the movie that accompanied Ghost Stories’ live stream proved a pretty fruitless endeavour, but there was one moment I sat up for. As “Midnight” rolled around, the album’s cover darkened, and its two gorgeously illustrated wings became sullen shadows of themselves, burnt under the command of Chris Martin’s ambient hum. It was a trick so easy and obvious I groaned a little, because it’s the kind of thing artists are taught not to do with their music videos: match a story with the same story. As the record got darker, Martin decided he would dim the lights for us.

That’s gonna stay with me, sadly; I’ll remember watching the lights go down for “Midnight” on iTunes. It’ll probably become one of the defining moments of my Coldplay fandom, which sucks, but at least it’s instructive. It confirms that Martin’s palette is simple, and that the charm of Coldplay lies is his songwriting’s naivety. I like to imagine him, before heading into the studio to record that piece of auto-tuned, abstracted pop, scribbling the word “darkness” onto a napkin. Never mind a lyrics sheet—that’s the only prompt he needs.

In my opinion, Martin’s biggest strength is the same thing that makes him a terrible lyricist. His naivety has made all of his records irresistibly cohesive, despite piling on different producers, surprising features, and bullshit concepts. If he wants to be maximalist, to drop a posi guitar rock album that flows down like an avalanche, he will; if he wants to make a record so quiet and slow it can, for a moment, suspend the idea of Coldplay as the world’s biggest arena rock band, he will. And if he wants to submit to concept, he will. Martin’s more Peter Gabriel than you think; he might not write the densest of stories, but he doesn’t know what in the fuck a “loose” concept is.

What makes a Coldplay record great is how singularly-minded it is. Viva la Vida (2008) tried for bona fide art pop, and with the help of Brian Eno, the band realised that such a thing probably didn’t exist anymore, and that maybe the best way to make their music sound international was simply to remove the Brit from the pop. Even in “Cemeteries of London,” you can hear the band trying to delineate England, to make it sound like another country by sending it back a couple centuries; the grainy, alien textures and piano that sounds like rain dropping on thatched roofs. Viva la Vida’s aim wasn’t to make Coldplay weird, but to give Coldplay to the world, clinging only to the English language by default. Whether or not that aim is questionable, it is an example of their focus, giving the pop music of Viva space to breathe, double up, and then to wind down. The record had an aim and succeeded in executing it: from then on, my mum never held Chris Martin responsible for writing “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” again.

Mylo Xyloto (2011) sounds similar to Viva, but its aim is different: it tried to be the biggest, boldest piece of pop you could hear at that moment. “Paradise” burst from its seams in synths and choirs, “Princess of China” provided a walk-on cameo for Rihanna (which, if I’m allowed to join in on the internet’s revisionist history of Coldplay, totally fucking ruled), and “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” became the most superlative-y song in Coldplay’s history. I can distinctly remember the lyrics sheet released with “Every Teardrop,” because Martin wanted to burn it into my brain. It was in all caps, rendering phrases like “I TURN THE MUSIC UP / I GOT MY RECORDS ON” as rebellion, the closest Martin will get to saying an ecstatic fuck you. As far as pop music released by modest, boring Brits go, Mylo Xyloto is like hearing our version of “IT’S OUR PARTY / WE CAN DO WHAT WE WANT.” Once Martin gets on a hype, it takes him at least five songs to come down.

I’m totally unsurprised that Martin has tried, with Ghost Stories, to distance himself from the bluster of Mylo Xyloto the only way he knows how: by writing a record that is every bit its antonym. People will compare it to Parachutes (2000), a record of folk songs that moved slower than any other piece of Britpop ever made, but it’s an unrevealing comparison. In moments, it does remind me of that record, though not on an aesthetic level. It’s like the band is retreating to a time when they weren’t at all famous, when they could make simple, more internally questioning pop music. If your biggest qualm with Martin is that he’s the world’s hardest-to-relate to famous musician, because he’s sung a modest anthem like “Yellow” to like a billion people, then Ghost Stories takes you back to a time when that song was a cute Britpop hit rather than the biggest one ever. It has to-a-lover songs like “Magic,” with its flat-lining beat and searching piano chords, and it has “Another’s Arms,” which takes Martin’s more recent saga-like songwriting and places it in his lounge. It’s a little bit like Parachutes, in that it’s a quieter, shier record, but now it’s being made by one of the biggest bands in the world. For the record, though, the only song that sounds remotely like The King of Limbs (2011) is “Oceans.”

It’s better to compare Ghost Stories with Mylo Xyloto, because both shoot for aesthetics so different but so specific: one is maximalist, the other minimalist, both inhabiting two different worlds that Martin considers equally beautiful. Ghost Stories could have sounded huge, on another day, but here it’s a tiny slab of whatever. Its icy riffs are suppressed, existing as much in the backdrop as its placating beats. Like the elusive “Midnight,” nothing really stands out at all, because the record always wants to go to the quietest place. Even “A Sky Full of Stars”—which feels comically super-imposed onto the record, landing with a thud that sounds like Martin’s fallen asleep on his piano and woken up in a club of bros who actually like Coldplay—is more interested in the small spaces it can carve out. In the verses you can hear hushed and momentary riffs, and before its choruses, you can hear Martin’s voice try to go it alone. I contest the idea of “A Sky Full of Stars” as Big Music—it’s weightless EDM, and Avicii’s appearance actually seems to respect that, phasing in the drop only after Martin has moulded it into the record’s twilight vibe. Yeah, song sucks on its own, but it’s weirdly charming on a record as subdued as this one.

If you’ve loved Coldplay’s recent loud and proud sound, Ghost Stories will be a shock, and it probably won’t be an enjoyable one. The only thing it shares with Viva la Vida and Mylo Xyloto is a wish to project its feelings in the panoramic, to wash “Magic” in ambience and supplement “Oceans” with an unceasing radar motif. For me, though, Ghost Stories satisfies the type of Britpop fan I once was, the one who didn’t really get the bigger, happier, less self-loathing records that were getting made, the ones about cheeky city-dwelling rockers. I feel like I lost a lot of the affection I had for Definitely Maybe (1994) over the years, and while I still love Blur’s discography, the Britpop records I revisit the most are ones with the same over-serious tragedies as Ghost Stories: the songs that Starsailor wrote, with titles as all-out lame as “She Just Wept,” or the anthems that Embrace made. I think Comfort in Sound (2002), which exists in awful circumstances, is the most accomplished Feeder record. These aren’t the sounds we remember, but there was a place for them, and there’s a spark of the sad boys in Ghost Stories that reminds me of the days when weepy soft rock was, bizarrely, blowing up.

These songs can sound insubstantial—“True Love” is pretty shitty, throwing strings in next to fiery guitar effects that make for a messy genre contradiction, and not the good kind—but there’s something compelling about that. Ghost Stories is lonely, but it also sounds elegiac, like being in bed and feeling as if you’re hovering above the ground. Its most cheerful moments come in distraught conditions: “Ink,” which rings with squeaky effects and the record’s most playful percussion, revolves around a lyric that’s devastating, regardless of the fact that Martin can’t write for shit: “All I know is that I’m lost / Whenever you go.” “Ink” also shows that a sound as down-tempo as this can match anything Mylo Xyloto did: in this subdued environment, Martin can still ham it up, throw out a few obscenely loud YEAH YEAH YEAHs and then return to his lovesick paradise.

Which is to say that Ghost Stories, while suitably lame—like, efficiently so, the work of a band actively keeping up with its lack of cool—is also a pretty record, and a strangely sympathetic one. The lack of insistence is inviting, and the fact Martin has little impulse to get these songs on the radio (except once, but that’s cool) will make it the first Coldplay record in a while to ask what you think of it. And while I can see the bile it’s received in some corners as indicative of being bored of having to belong to the same country as a band this continually popular, and the indifference in others a result of liking Justin Vernon and whiskey more than Chris Martin and water, I’ll take Ghost Stories as a minor triumph. It’s a cold and moving record from a band that pretty much invented the whole I’m Sad and This Is Britpop scene. Good to have you back, guys. Now write Embrace another song. They need it.