There are three things in life one can always count on; death, taxes, and the next new Coldplay album. Ever since the group first burst onto the scene with the insipid and chick-magnet chart topper “Yellow”, I’ve always regarded them as the bastard (albeit unintended) offspring of Radiohead, only with more pretension, and less intelligence. If Coldplay were a type of food group, it would be of the most spurious nutritional kind. And while it might satisfy the listener at the time of intake, you know it will ultimately leave them feeling dietetically deprived and hungry afterwards.
So, for their sixth LP, what have these shallow chefs elected to serve up this time? A deep and meaningful stir fry? Or perhaps a philosophically reflective soufflé? No doubt the news of Chris Martin’s failed marriage with Gwyneth Paltrow will dominate any discussion of its content, whether autobiographical or otherwise. Which is a shame, because I’ve often felt that someone’s personal life should remain separate to the work itself. Unless you’re talking about Blood On the Tracks of course, or some other such ‘breakup’ album, which Ghost Stories is also no doubt meant to be. However Martin is no Dylan when it comes to complex expression. And even when he tries, he might as well be selling the latest Nivea skin cream for men for all I know. It’s hard to tell.
Take opener “Always in My Head”. The production is indeed impressive, and as sophisticated as anything on their previous endeavours. However the lyrics themselves are anything but. And while one should never expect a high poetic standard when it comes to popular music, with lines like “So my mouth waters to be fed/And you’re always inside my head”, you’d think Martin could have come up with something a little more refined to describe his feelings for his wife. Likewise second song “Magic”, where Martin intones “Call it Magic/Call it true/Call it magic/When I’m with you/And I just got broken/Broken in two…. No I don’t want no-body else but you”. Call me cynical, but it sounds like the sort of rhyme Robert Burns might have written when he was ten. Then again, one gets the sense that the majority of Coldplay’s fans aren’t exactly of the literary sort, so who cares anyway. Admittedly the piano and guitars are nice, weaving in and out to form a breezy, comforting soundscape, but that’s the problem, it’s all so nice, to the point where you begin to wonder whether Martin and co have ever truly suffered a day in their whole synthetically treated lives (any parent who names their kids ‘Apple’ and ‘Moses’ perhaps proves my point).
“Ink” finds Martin pondering on his recent loss (“All I know/Is that I love you so”); “True love” has more of those adolescent lines (“For a second I was in control/I had it once, I lost it though”). Martin sings through a vocoder on “Midnight”, while the song generally has a cold, electronic feel to it, the sort of thing Radiohead did much better on Kid A. On “Another’s Arms” Chris just wishes that his misses were there to watch late night telly with him (no doubt something starring Reese Witherspoon); while “Oceans” is a thoughtful ballad, lead by acoustic guitar and pretty atmospherics.
The only song to heavily deviate from the album’s general theme is “A Sky Full of Stars”, an uplifting and dance-oriented number, which seems completely out of place on here. A bit like turning up at your best friend’s funeral wearing a “don’t worry, be happy” t-shirt while brandishing a bag of ecstasy. “O” brings the curtain down in a suitably solemn way, with plenty of tinkling piano designed to pull at the old heart strings, and maybe even cause you to reach for a tissue or two.
Ultimately, any semblance of personal intimacy is compromised by the sheer quantity of treated vocals and machine-generated drum beats, not to mention all the synthesizers, meaning that the album will probably sound dated in the not too distant future. For when it comes to expressing inner turmoil, sometimes less is more, which gives me a sneaking suspicion that the boys still have one eye on the commercial music charts with this one.
Turning heartache into an artistic statement is as old as art itself, and ever since there’s been music, man has always used it as a vehicle for despair. But Ghost Stories is the sort of anguish one experiences over a chickpea curry, all washed down with herbal tea and a glass of natural spring water, before heading off for some yoga. No whisky and cigarettes here thank you very much.
I’m sure that it won’t be long before Martin falls in love again, writes a new suite of songs about how ‘beautiful life is’, prior to once more taking his band out on another world conquering tour, all the while filling people’s heads (and the band’s coffers) with sweeping themes of trivial grandeur. One can only shudder.