Saturday, May 17, 2014

album review: 'ghost stories' by coldplay

I think Coldplay has a worse reputation than they deserve.

Yes, they tend to get lumped into the category of silent majority acts, bands adored by the mainstream but generally viewed outside of the mainstream as making crowd-pleasing pablum, and yes, they've written more than their fair share of broadly sketched, saccharine trifle, and yes, Chris Martin can be a preening, pretentious dick, but when you take a step away from all of that, is Coldplay really all that bad?

Honestly, I don't think so. I'm not going to thrash a band for being accessible if they make good music along the way, and I'd be hard-pressed to deny that Coldplay has written some great melodies and decent lyrics throughout the course of their career. I think part of the issue with Coldplay is the undeserved hype behind them and I remember the push for the band as the next stadium rock act in the vein of U2. But while I can say Coldplay puts on a great show, having seen them live in 2009 when they toured with Snow Patrol, they're playing in a different wheelhouse than a band like U2, in instrumentation and especially in songwriting. 

But around the mid-to-late 2000s, things started to shift with Coldplay. They started working with Markus Dravs and Brian Eno when they released the slightly more experimental Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, which remains my favourite Coldplay album for amping up their epic scope into something with some actual teeth. They then tried for a concept album with Mylo Xyloto, and while I'm still not really a fan of that record, I do respect the band for sticking with Eno and trying something new. Granted, I couldn't take Chris Martin's bad pretentions behind asinine lyrics remotely seriously, and the autotune was completely unnecessary, I can't really call the album more than just a slight misfire for me.

But when I started hearing the first singles from Coldplay's newest album Ghost Stories, I was immediately worried. Not only did they seem softer and weaker than ever, they seemed to be opting for a drearier, ambient tone, the same sort that's been smothering indie rock like a plague for the past year. In other words, I had nothing but bad feeling about this album going into it: was I wrong?

Well... not quite. I'll admit this album isn't bad, but it was exactly what I was expecting. And to tell you all the truth, I've been really struggling with this review because this album raises so little of a reaction for me, which'll likely mean this review is short but it also means Ghost Stories by Coldplay isn't getting a recommendation. What's most frustrating about this album is that I can see what they were trying to do in terms of their sound and album concept, but in the end the result is just not compelling for me. At all.

So I guess the best place to start is the instrumentation, which is easily the most melancholy and mood-centric that it has been since X&Y. I wouldn't exactly call the album tightly composed - the tracks meander and all feel overlong, but the drum machines add a brittle framework over the record that mostly gives it a bit of shape. In fact, if I'm going to point to an area that at least has definition, it'd be the percussion, because most of the melodies feel hazy and aimless, at a few points building to a fraction of a crescendo or slow burn but never exploding. In fact, if we're looking for a word to define the instrumental momentum of this record, it'd be anticlimax - a very polished, well-produced brand of anticlimax, but at the end of most songs, I'm left dissatisfied. Now that's not saying I don't like moments of these tracks. I like the acoustic transition in 'Magic', I like the slightly off-kilter guitar solo in 'True Love', I like the melodic progression of 'Another's Arms' for its moody darkness, and in following Kanye West's footsteps from 808s & Heartbreak, I like the usage of pitch correction in 'Midnight' to emphasize that feeling of loneliness. But for all of the pretentions to minimalism, the mix of these songs feel littered with extraneous effects and layers that don't add anything to these songs, and the deft touch of Brian Eno on production is definitely missed here, and it all adds up to songs that might sound pretty, but lack momentum or presence thanks to the lumpy bass tone and the stiff percussion. Jonny Buckland remains the standout musician for his guitar melodies, but even he can't do much with this album's compositions not willing to drive drama or powerful emotions. It's telling that the most incongruous moment on the album, the EDM-inspired production on 'A Sky Full Of Stars' by Avicii has the most energy and power on this album, which actually lends it some some emotional weight.

Granted, I get the frustrating feeling that was part of the point, as Chris Martin said the album's themes surrounding how to deal with one's past, both good and bad. And given that the album is characterized by troubled relationships, many people are calling the record a break-up album. But if that's true - and I'm inclined to believe it is - I'm not convinced it's a great one. I will give Coldplay credit for articulating some degree of nuance across several songs - I like the insecurity and desperation in 'True Love', I like the bitterness in 'Another's Arms', and I like that the narrator finally lets go in the album closer track 'O'. There is something of an arc here, which kind of works on a rough level. But here's where we also run into the first of two big problems: the songwriting. Speaking as a Coldplay fan, they aren't subtle songwriters - and honestly, that's one of the reasons I've liked them - they can go for broke and sell that sort of simple songwriting that has made them such an accessible and emotionally compelling act. But this sort of break-up album, with complicated emotions and undercurrents, almost demands more subtlety than this, and thus Coldplay's broadly sketched lyrics come across as reductive. And on top of the fact that the poetry is nothing all that stellar, the picture presented here lacks dimension. We get plenty of shots of Chris Martin's wistful sadness and loneliness, but not a lot else, and in comparison with Beck's Morning Phase, the other moody record that focused on getting over the past, Ghost Stories falls painfully short.

Granted, I can't blame the songwriting entirely, which takes us to the second problem: Chris Martin's delivery - and you know, I won't deny that there are moments where he's an effective emotional presence behind the microphone, and I don't doubt he has some range. But maybe his falsetto is weakening with age, because man, it's nowhere near what it's been on previous albums. And you can tell the vocal production is doing whatever it can to prop it up, but it sounds shaky and not in a good way. I'm guessing part of it came from Martin's desire to sing more quietly and intimately, but you need an incredible voice and incredible control to pull off falsetto like that, and really, off the top of my head, Rhye is probably the most recent act to pull it off. And in comparison with that, Martin's voice is just not as powerful in that range in this setting. And while I won't deny his muted, understated performance might fit the attempted tone of the songwriting, the actual content which is much more broad just doesn't match that level of nuance or empathetic delivery, which means I don't get a sense of real drama from this album. It doesn't have real emotional weight with me, which means I find it hard to get invested.

But in the end, the album's okay, I guess. It passes the time, it's not going to offend anyone, but it does cement in my mind a suspicion I've had since Mylo Xyloto, and that is that Coldplay is a little too concerned with being considered as relevant in music. They're always going to make music that is recognizably their own, but if there's a sound that's hot and attractive in mainstream music, they're going to use it in some way. Right now, stripped-down, ambient indie rock and EDM are becoming more popular, and it's no surprise Coldplay incorporated elements of both into this record to make it as accessible and timely as possible. And with elements like that, and the fact that I'm not sold on the emotional weight in the songwriting or delivery, makes the album really come across as calculated to me, and that's never a good feeling. That said, the moments I liked did outshine the moments I didn't, so I'm giving this album a light 6/10. But as a Coldplay fan, these guys can do a lot better, and I can't say I'm not disappointed. Sorry.


  1. Bit of a long shot as it was released a month ago, but are you planning to review the Damon Albarn solo album? You've mentioned in the past that you like going through back catalogues, and the guy has a pretty eclectic discography.

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    1. URL's changed, now it's