Coldplay's "Ghost Stories" A Quiet Masterpiece

There's a moment that comes near the end of Ghost Stories (Parlophone/WEA), the sixth album proper by Coldplay, where singer Chris Martin breaks my heart - something he hasn't done since opening their watershed release, A Rush Of Blood To The Head with the elliptic-yet-haunting "Politik." There, Chris implored us to "open up your eyes" to the chaos of the world, before making the declaration, "Just give me love over this." I could feel every ounce of sincerity coming through in his voice, but unlike the lovesongs that moved other Coldplay devotees (from "Yellow" to "The Scientist", the latter also on Rush) I sensed that underneath, Chris was crying for the pain of being human. Folks only dance around this topic when writing songs of love, or so I thought.

The song in question on Ghost Stories is "Oceans." As on "Politik", a string arrangement figures prominently, and as on the former, the lyrics are deceptively simple: "Wait for your call, love/The call never came/Ready to fall, love/Ready to claim/I'm ready for it all, love/Ready for the pain..."When Martin attempts to reach into his signature falsetto, his voice unexpectedly cracks before dipping into a lower register. Being the perfectionist that he is, I find it hard to believe there wasn't a take where Martin nailed it, but daring to go with the imperfect version tells me that at this stage in his career (and by extension, that of the band,) he's starting to value things of greater import - like, say authenticity. The last line of the song is "You've got to find yourself alone in this world", and while we wait in vain for some optimistic resolution, the tune dissolves in a minimal, ambient fog.

"Oceans" was covered during Coldplay's pre-release tv special on NBC, recorded live at a soundstage in Los Angeles - actually, the performance was included in video form: in it, Martin is seen alone, walking to the edge of an illuminated pier at night, carrying an acoustic guitar. Sitting on a bench, Martin strums his guitar and begins singing, with the studio version's minimal percussion loop and orchestral strings gently hovering in the background. It's the saddest thing I've seen in years, even before Chris puts his guitar down, and plunges into the water below. James Blunt, of course, employed this device at the end of his video for "You're Beautiful", but where Blunt telegraphs his intent prior to the moment, Martin's action seems impulsive - a desperate attempt to dissolve grief by being swallowed whole. We've never seen Martin this emotionally vulnerable, and there's no doubt the dissolution of his marriage served as the catalyst for many of the songs on this album.

A lot of factors make Ghost Stories a particularly risky gamble for the band: multiple producers, including Paul Epworth (Adele, John Legend) and Timbaland (Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado) -usually a red flag for music critics; wading in the waters of electronica and EDM, which has already drawn its share of detractors (apparently, Coldplay's staunchest have no idea that Royksopp took the anthemic "Clocks", and transformed it into a minor dancefloor smash); and, with the exception of the energetic "Sky Full Of Stars" nothing that could remotely be described as vintage Coldplay. Even the first single, "Magic" dares to flirt with a programmed drum beat and pop approach more suited to the likes of Blunt. Here, Martin attempts to put on a brave face in the aftermath of a breakup: "If you were to ask me, after all we've been through/Do I believe in magic? Yes I do, of course I do" - leaving us to wonder if he truly does, or is trying to convince himself.

While I've no doubt this album was already in the can by the time Martin and wife Gwyneth Paltrow made a joint announcement of their "uncoupling" (see, these folks can't even bring themselves to say "divorce"), there's a Rumours-like confessional feel that follows the music like, well a ghost. While not as unflinchingly bleak as Beck's Sea Change, Ghost Stories eschews the grandiosity of albums like Viva La Vida - the string arrangements by violist/conductor John Metcalfe (formerly of 80's pop-ambient pioneers The Durutti Column) go for subtlety and pathos rather than dramatic bombast. If anything, the sparse musical backdrop provides room for Martin's vocals to connect, while Jonny Buckland's tasteful guitar solos end up accentuating, not grandstanding.

As concept discs go, this is also one of Coldplay's shortest, clocking in at a little over 40 minutes. Some critics have opined the album feels incomplete because of this (and the lack of dense production), but again, given their modus operandi, I applaud the band for making the album they wanted to make, not catering to their fanbase, even if it means losing some of them forever - or at least until the next release. Early on, when Chris Martin admitted his aspirations for the group to become as popular as U2 - he was likely aiming for The Joshua Tree when making that bold declaration. Coldplay actually reaches that goal on the sparse, haunting "Midnight", only its frame of reference is U2's 1993 release, Zooropa.  From Martin's keening falsetto to the allegorical lyrics ("In the darkness before the dawn/In the swirling of this storm/When I'm rolling with the thunder, but bleed from thorns....") to Buckland's Edge-y guitar arpeggios, it's a more sincere homage than Rush Of Blood's  "God Put A Smile Upon Your Face."

One could describe Ghost Stories as a post-modern Zooropa - U2's experimental foray into EDM - it was by turns prescient, daring, and ultimately a commercial failure. It was also one of the U2's most variegated and creative albums, and only connected with a fraction of their core audience: tunes like the spoken-word, stream of consciousness rant "Numb", the Duran Duran-ish "Lemon" and the pop-ambient leanings of the title track were unapologetically anti-anthemic, and while it clearly did not shift as many units as Achtung Baby or All That You Can't Leave Behind, the average customer review rating on iTunes is an impressive four stars. Which goes to show, success can be measured by other yardsticks than being certified platinum or landing in the Billboard Top Ten. Ghost Stories is not likely to be the big comeback album everyone expects, and I say, thank goodness. When following your own muse and the creative process is its own reward, the results can be equally impressive, critics (and fans) be damned. 

For archived Boston Globe reviews written by David Gerard, please visit the italicized link here.


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