'Coldplay man'. My first reaction to Ghost Stories had my mind evoking the inflection that veterans use when they talk about Vietnam. 'Coldplay man. They've seen some things. Done some things. I wouldn't recommend it'. It's an odd reaction to have to a band who can, for all intents and purposes, be described as the modern day U2, and are quite comfortably the biggest band in the world right now. Every generation has one. They are unlikely to be the best band, although Led Zeppelin proved that duality was possible, and The Beatles were transcendence in the flesh. Coldplay are not quite as emotive as Robert Plant in his prime, they're not as stratospheric as Van Halen could be, they aren't anywhere near as volatile as Nirvana were, and they cannot touch Depeche Mode for adulterated hatred and self-loathing. Yet they sit comfortably atop the world of pop and rock music, dusting off the One Directions by rooting their sound firmly in musical ability, whilst dodging the obscurity that Radiohead have sought out by ensuring each of their albums sonically tops the last. Coldplay are the biggest band in the world right now.
Ghost Stories answers the perennial question that pop bands sit down with everytime they decide to break out the guitars and the synths again and look at their next charting single. The first encounter, Magic, entered the fray like the shy guy at a party, who gradually emerges in to the most charismatic attendee. He doesn't hop up on stage, drunk and shirtless, and sing a pitch perfect rendition of Don't Stop Believing, which is a character Coldplay have been all to happy to adopt in the past. Rather he sidles up to each independent social group, offering a wise word here and a rehearsed laugh there, building a reputation. Forget for a second the drum machine beat, the xylophonic (yes I know they called their last album Mylo Xyloto) touches and the silky smooth production, just focus on Chris Martin, because for the next 9 songs he will be an anchor that not only roots you to the spot, but has enough give to let your imagination soar, if only briefly.
Now, the 'conscious uncoupling'. I think the spin doctors must've sat down with a dictionary and a thesaurus and, over caviar and henessy, come up with the most absurd yet neutral phrase possible to describe the break up of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. A mild media circus ensued, including much derision, yet Ghost Stories makes it plainly clear that this was no uncoupling. Martin was dragged, kicking and screaming, away from his love, his light and his world. Juxtapose this record with the rainbow perma-blaze that was Mylo Xyloto and you'd be concerned for the mans mental health. And that's just in a sonic sense. Never before have we been let in to Martins world so fully. He stands before us, completely naked, a man who has been stripped of his dignity and soul, and he lays it on the line. That final piece to camera at the end of Magic, 'Do you still believe in magic? Well yes I do' is a lovely parting shot, and the next single, A Sky Full Of Stars, continues the myth that he is able to flood himself with positivity despite his circumstance. Viewed in isolation there is hope, yet the despair dangerously outweighs it.
I've been here before with Coldplay. Everyone has that band that, for some reason or another, stands as a beacon, marking prominent life events. Sometimes there are entire records you can't even listen to anymore, and Viva La Vida is one, which is a crime because it is such a beautiful piece of music. Oddly, though, emotion has never been rammed down our throats. Songs like The Hardest Part hid a dark underbelly within a crafted pop package. Politik could've been a call to arms for those of us skating through life, barely existing on the frgines, yet that pounding drum instead gave it a hypnotic quality that was the anti-thesis of its message. Ghost Stories throws all of that, not only out the window, but it sets it on fire first, and then heads downstairs to crush the ashes. This could comfortably be a Chris Martin solo record, as Buckland becomes increasingly redundant and I am sure Will Champion spent more time with Pro Tools open on his computer than he did sitting behind a drum kit. Each song is slicker than a 1950s hair do, with studio magic replacing the organic instrumental direction of the records closest sonic cousin, Parachutes. Opener Always In My Head is a mournful croon that Buckland, almost sheepishly, props up with a slack lead and Champion ballasts with an overworked high hat. Ink follows a similar path, this time, and I am loathe to say it, but it almost sounds like they opened Garage Band and used the intuitive drum function to create something. Their percussion has always been on the hip hop side of pop, but on Mylo Xyloto and Viva La Vida it was hidden behind the most outrageous histrionics of synth and power piano that it played little more than a supporting role. Now that Martin has stripped back the sound, the meat and potatoes come to the fore, and they aren't seasoned.
I guess you could criticise here and lament that the band has lost 'the band', essentially. On Parachutes they were naive and enamoured with their instruments, and a 4 piece made perfect sense. Ghost Stories makes me wonder if Buckland and Berryman spent most of the recording process next door, ordering latte's for Champion and Martin. Never mind. The true star is Chris Martin and his absolutely shattered heart, which lays in sharp shards all over the record, piercing you with pain and misery. Sound dramatic? Here's a few track names. Always In My Head, True Love, Another's Arms. Other's have criticised the simplicity of his words, yet I find this almost unbelievable. If you'd like someone to spit a dictionary at you, go download a Fleet Foxes album (I love them btw, no diss!). The starkness of the words, layed over the top of the most fruity loops of music, provides an honesty and disarming beauty that will endear Ghost Stories to anyone who has a heart, a soul, and a love. 'My body moves/Goes where I will/But though I try/My heart stays still'. 'I call it magic when I'm with you'. 'When I'm rolling with the punches and hope is gone/ Leave a light on'. Seriously, have you never been in love before? Far out.
When he finally does snap out of his melancholic haze, not until track 8, A Sky Full Of Stars, the result is staggering. Yes, it's cynical. It's a HUGE piano riff, but let's not forget these guys played and dominated the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. You couldn't have anyone else, and it's with thanks that you finally see him breach the surface and charge towards the sky. 'Such a heavenly view'. Simplicity is beauty. You don't go up to your lover and quote Shakespeare. Well, maybe you do, but that's not the kind of relationship I am too keen on. You tell them you love them. You tell them they are a sky full of stars. When they leave, you email them and let them know that the world means nothing because they are in anothers arms.
I approached Ghost Stories stupidly. I was in an incredibly vulnerable situation, as I was with Viva La Vida, and I turned it on and didn't turn it off for three days. I don't know that I will ever turn it back on again when I remove myself from the current circumstance. There is SO MUCH WRONG with this record. It is anemic, it is over produced, it just sounds like Chris Martin in front of a keyboard singing in to the microphone. But now the true essence of a genius front man becomes entirely clear. Not once did he try to hit the charts on Ghost Stories. But it will be slathered all over them for months to come. 15 year old girls will once again swoon over his beautiful falsetto, his angsty lyrics, his love that shines as clear as day for a woman he no longer has. Ghost Stories is brilliant.