As the alternative rock band Coldplay’s highly anticipated Ghost Stories floats into stores and online retailers today, one can’t help but wonder further about their latest record. Coming off a brilliant performance set with a small sample from their sixth studio album at the SXSW’s presentation of the iTunes Festival this past February, the band has clearly been missed by fans and critics alike. Last night, viewers had the opportunity to see the band perform in an NBC special celebrating their new music. Directed by Paul Dugdal, the hour-long television program which was filmed two months ago in Los Angeles, featured new songs and old, and integrated narrative film with stunning and intimate live-performance footage that was shot in front of 800 lucky fans.
Ghost Stories is the band’s first record since 2011’s Mylo Xyloto—an album that sold over 8 million copies worldwide. The quartet embarked on a tour that began in October 2011, continuing well up until the end of 2012, with a series of one-off concerts in Europe and music festivals during the leg of touring.
Shortly after the SXSW performance this winter, it was announced a month later that lead singer, Chris Martin and his wife of 11 years, Gwyneth Paltrow were breaking up after twelve years together. The news devastated fans and came as quite a surprise to many. A letter written by Paltrow was put up via her lifestyle website, GOOP, where she stated though the two love each other very much and will co-parent their two children, they will remain separate.
In an interview with BBC Radio 1‘s Zane Lowe, Coldplay’s lead singer, Martin said the idea of Ghost Stories was more of an introspective journey for his writing. “The idea of Ghost Stories, for me, was ‘how do you let the things that happen to you in the past—your ghosts—how do you let them affect your present and your future?’ Because there was a time when I was feeling like they were going to drag me down and ruin my life, and the lives of those around me,” he says. “I was very lucky to meet a very good Sufi teacher who started to introduce the idea of ‘if you sit with your experiences and the things you’ve been through, they alchemize.’ At the time he said that, I didn’t really know what that meant, but I trusted that it would work, and the more that I was learning about that, the more music just started flowing through.”
It’s evident while listening to Ghost Stories that it is so much of a journey into a breaking heart, as it looks into the spirit of a past relationship and the remnants of a life once loved and lived. The concept album explores not just the themes of heartbreak, but the idea of past actions ever-so articulately with a focus on the effects such actions can have on the future and one’s own capacity for love. The tone of the record is carefully captured with the opening track, “Always in My Head“. The ethereal tune about neglect is achingly beautiful and tender, with an understandable representation of a dolorous relationship. With steady percussion, accompanied by the delicate guitar and drums, it’s dreamy and intense. The second track to follow is “Magic” and it is exactly that. The song which is reminiscent of their 18 year discography is a soft, sort of mellow track that celebrates love from the eyes of a believer. Though it is bass-heavy with a rich acoustic guitar buildup, it’s definitely vintage Coldplay as Martin’s smooth voice glides through great textured lyrics.
“Ink” is a snappy tune that really stands out. Though upbeat, it is in contrast a painful song, but equally, another homage to classic Coldplay writing. With beautifully touching lyrics, it picks up from “Always In My Head” where Martin sings about not being able to sleep because he’s stuck in the memory of what he’s lost. With “Ink”, he gets the tattoo as a way to hold onto the connection that is clearly fading. With light guitar rhythms, the melodies bounce almost on tip-toes and make this track pop.
“True Love” is the point in the record where the listener really grasps the overall themes. Similar to the sounds of A Rush of Blood to the Head or X&Y, the lyrics flow into the idea of desperation and disbelief as love begins to evaporate. The listener wouldn’t know it unless mentioned, but the bass drum was produced by Timbaland and serves the melody well as Martin floats into a hypnotic, laid-back beat. The off-key plunges of guitar from bandmate, Jonny Buckland are a highlight.
As we reach the middle of the album, we get acquainted with the fifth track, “Midnight” that proves time is running out in the relationship. The atmospheric track is easily one of the most isolated and icy tunes, reminiscent of some of the masterpieces found on Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. The song is haunting and leaves you feeling cold and lonely, as it descends into an almost nocturnal ambiance. It may sound like a Bon Iver tune with the static synths and brooding electronic rhythms, but it does have Coldplay’s signature all over it.
The lyrics throughout Ghost Stories are upfront and profoundly emotional. “Another’s Arms” dives into the bottomless chasm of infidelity as Martin sings “When the pain just rips right through me/Another’s arms, another’s arms/And that’s just torture to me/Another’s arms, another’s arms.” It fits accordingly to the record’s themes of lost love but touches delicately on the carnal aspect of a relationship. What’s interesting to this particular track isn’t just the chiming guitar but the background vocals of what sound like an angelic presence singing, moving in a vacillating fashion through the beats, reflective of the real-life bumps experienced in any moribund relationship.
The seventh track titled “Oceans” is quite possibly the best song on the record and evocative of the band’s debut from 2000, Parachutes. Within the depths of such a track, it’s fascinating to hear a bright, optimistic symbol of hope and survival—repetitive sonar pings. Though it serves as great symbol of persistence with Martin singing, “Got to find yourself alone in this world/You’ve got to find yourself alone,” the track ends with a looped hiss of static and fading wedding bells. It’s poignant, extremely folksy with tasteful strings and has that same sort of vocal isolation heard in “Midnight”. “Oceans” is another aching vocal that has Martin shifting from tenor to falsetto, hinting at a future of self-discovery after the demise of a relationship. It’s a beautiful track that serves the age-old saying, “you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else”.
“A Sky Full of Stars” as the eighth song on Ghost Stories may seem out of place after the darker subject matter that precedes it, but like everything that happens in a relationship, it’s meant for a reason and is one of the best dance tracks from the band so far. With the opening piano chords pumping into a rhythm that lets loose, it’s a euphoric, light and airy track that functions both as an anthem and the album’s climax. With Martin singing through the electronics and echoing vocals, “I don’t care, go on and tear me apart,” the listener discovers through the hardship that every relationship—forged or broken—is meant for a specific moment in time and at the benefit of those involved. There is no replacing anyone at any time in life, but the ones that count will stand out the brightest no matter the direction.
The record ends on “O (Fly On)” and it’s a heartbreaking track. Like a flock of birds, the song flies lightly over a stunning piano, while hinting at Martin’s spiritual growth and the strength he found to move on from his own personal aches. You can’t help but wonder how cathartic this album was for him while writing. It’s extremely earthy, majestic and though simple, eloquently beautiful. It bares a ton of soul and heart as Martin sings, “Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you.” The song ties nicely into the theme of the album and the symbolism behind birds like that of life, death and transcendence. It’s a fitting end to the record and ties into the aspect of existing or experiencing life beyond the normal or physical level; reaching a spiritual transcendence of sorts, similarly to Martin’s discussion with the Sufi.
As the album cover shows a pair of angelic wings in the shape of a broken heart, the music flows into the notion that though love can be grand, it has its own power over who you are. That’s what makes Ghost Stories such a perfect album. It leaves its own mark and abandons everything we knew about Coldplay as the album follows one person’s path from the heart-rendering pain of separation to its final acceptance. Martin, with the help of his fellow bandmates, Buckland, Guy Berry and Will Champion, were able to turn a life once lived into a sentimental piece of art that respectfully showcases love and loss in a delicate form.
Over the years, there have been countless records and songs about breakups, but not many regarding the mental pain or emotional distress suffered through the months or years like this one. Ghost Stories is unique, much like every star in the sky. It contains many layers of emotion and pain that begged for closure—that begged for personal understanding. Martin was able to really, courageously open up realms of himself for this record and it’s commendable. With the release of this album, they’ve been able to set aside their trademark grandiosity and really set a new path for themselves without compromise. The variety of tracks found on the record are broad, focusing on various aspects of any depleting relationship, but are neatly book-ended by soft, soothing numbers that just tug at hope and optimism.
As Coldplay heads into their second decade of musical contributions, they’ve definitely become more adventurous in their sound in comparison to their previous work. It is a different record, because Martin is a different person. It is a departure from the ordinary Coldplay sound, but the album is a true testament to their musical greatness and is a beautiful piece of crafted art.
Ghost Stories is out now in stores and available online at iTunes and Amazon. For more information on Coldplay, visit their official website and follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Target (in USA and Canada) will be selling the exclusive, Deluxe Edition that features 3 bonus tracks.