It’s become impossible to underestimate Coldplay. That’s no longer hyperbole, just plain fact — and one that even the band themselves wishes weren’t true. They’ve released five consecutive multi-platinum albums, each one more ambitious and fit for public consumption than the last. Their global album sales far exceed 40 million copies. They’ve been rightfully compared to U2 and Radiohead, groups who at one point or another also held the title of World’s Biggest Rock Band. A guy named Kanye West (who’s no stranger to immodesty) once swore that Coldplay were on the same level as the Beatles, though he seems to have a overdramatic flair for those sort of things.
It wasn’t always this way. It’s ironic that instead of being a band that’s changed the course of history, Coldplay have always felt like ordinary blokes who were in the right place at the right time. On their first album Parachutes in 2000, Coldplay had the good fortune of sounding a lot like what listeners wished Radiohead would have sounded like during their Kid A years; they proceeded to leverage lead singer Chris Martin’s skill as a consummate tunesmith into a well-earned run of commercial and sometimes critical success. They were perfectly positioned to capitalize on indie music’s gentrification toward a more consumer-driven device in the mid-2000’s and apply studio gloss to their stadium-sized hooks during the the soon-to-follow rise of Poptimism. In today’s rock music landscape, Coldplay are as close as you can get to a sure thing.
Released at the apex of their popularity, Mylo Xyloto proved to be the London foursome’s most extravagant, slickest-sounding statement to date — a high-arcing, proletarian vision gone immeasurably stratospheric. Unfortunately though not coincidentally, it was also their most artistically vapid. After an unflattering (and admittedly pissed off) review of MX, I also discovered it was possible (and unwise) to underestimate Coldplay’s fans, who came to defense of their quartet with the feral madness of a mother bear protecting her cubs. The first reader comment I received was an oxymoron as brilliant as it was succinct: “I respect your personal opinion, but it’s all resentment bullshit.” Mylo Xyloto’s flaws remain largely indefensible — the costume-clad bombast, the cringing lyrical banality, and the band’s unflattering, sonic rendering of emotional bigness that amounts to little more than an aural bucket dump of gauche, neon colors. But it helped me come to terms with the notion that Coldplay is exactly who they say they are — a manifestation of the Everyman that has expanded its sound to fit the feelings of the global, post-Internet era it occupies. It’s uplifting, unchallenging music for ordinary folks living in troublesome, challenging times.
On wispy, electronically-tinged sixth album Ghost Stories, Chris Martin and company finally seek to downsize and find a maintainable equilibrium, but they’re literally unable to — victims of unattainable expectations, both theirs and ours. The attempt to scale back is admirable, but made all the more disheartening by the reality that Ghost Stories’ lack of intimacy is more a failure of craft than a sign of modesty. Martin is still a sensitive lad at heart — released only months after he separated from wife Gwyneth Paltrow, Ghost Stories is the “conscious uncoupling” album that everyone anticipated. But Martin’s grief feels almost nonchalant and delicately propped up on the overstuffed pillow of these sonically pristine, yet vacuous songs. Even when he seeks to introspect his pain with some semblance of nuance, Ghost Stories’ grandiose production and emotional blandness render the results both deaf and dumb. Martin wields his wounds like giant Nerf weapons, shaping Ghost Stories into the band’s most personal effort but also it’s most tepid.
We all have unseemly ways of dealing with public breakups, some better than others — on first single “Magic,” Martin makes the predictable analogy of being sawed in two sound positively populist when compared to that of Gwenyth, who likened the couple’s separation to discovering the world’s freshest paella (with super chef and shoulder-to-cry-on Mario Batali, naturally). Coldplay’s best songs are imminently relatable in the way they marry ubiquitous yearnings with irrepressible melodies, but given an opportunity to transform his angst into meaningful art, Martin settles for platitudes and songwriting pablum. If Ghost Stories sounds like what Martin feels when he’s at this worst, you can’t help thinking that life can’t be too bad.
As a lyricist, Martin has never promised us more than what he’s given — history reveals his desire to elevate sturdy and occasionally curious metaphors (watching clocks, crying like a waterfall, being yellow) into world-beating, heart-bearing anthems. He’s also never given us less than what he’s promised — Coldplay’s been the most dependable modern rock band of the last fifteen years, largely because of Martin’s uncanny knack for penning at least one or two big hits per album— no small feat for a rock band nestled between the extremes of indie elitism and pop music’s simple pleasures. And with the euphoric “A Sky Full of Stars” and the more understated yet enjoyable “Magic,” he’s done it again. The latter’s undulating bass line and Martin’s lovely vocal harmonies crescendo into an acoustic guitar sunburst that’s feathery-light yet enormous and among the most satisfying climaxes in the band’s canon. Pensive, vocoderized lullaby “Midnight” conjures the sweet, ghostly repose of Bon Iver’s “Woods” with an icy sliver of “Idioteque”-like IDM. It’s spooky, forlorn, and genuinely bewitching in spite of its derivative nature.
The problem is, besides those three pre-release singles (you can’t say Coldplay don’t know their audience), Ghost Stories is a colossal disappointment. Soggy sentiments and insipid, adolescent tropes reign over opener “Always in My Head” and soon to be overplayed “Ink” where Martin laments that he “got a tattoo that said ‘2gether thru life'” over an equally mindless assembly of dainty clinks, pings, and strums. On plodding ballad “True Love,” Martin lays his intentions bare: “Tell me you love me/ And if you don’t then lie to me/ And call it true love,” but neither his ex-wife nor soon to be ex-fans are bound to buy that canard.
On these supposedly gut-spilling endeavors, Martin too often has the unpleasant capacity for sounding melancholic yet sheepishly content. The songs that aren’t grotesquely maudlin feel musically and emotionally underdeveloped (“Another’s Arms” and “O”) and the best ones suffer from garish production choices, as if Coldplay couldn’t repress their own need for grandeur if they tried. Over-caffeinated synths and fist-pumping club beats cheapen the seismic chorus of “A Sky Full of Stars”; if it had been reinterpreted with searing guitars and the band’s old analog flourishes, the track might have soared like “Shiver” or “Fix You.” Instead, it feels like Coldplay covering Calvin Harris.
As experimental as Coldplay wants you to believe Ghost Stories is, it’s the safest move the band has ever made — a sub-par fastball over the fat part of the plate that is going to get crushed by critics and most fans alike. But give Martin credit for trying to downsize in an era when bigger is constantly perceived as better. As mammoth as this album’s promotion is, Coldplay is doing its best to make it feel intimate (surprise concerts for 800 people, intricate album cover etchings commissioned from artist Mila Fürstová, and lyric sheets hidden in libraries all over the world) and fervently sought after.
Before Ghost Stories’ release, “Magic” and “A Sky Full of Stars” were everywhere on the internet, yet nowhere to be found. Coldplay’s digital bodyguards rigorously ward off preemptive downloading of unreleased material, seeking to dictate the terms by which we experience these songs. We’re forced to consume them via Soundcloud clips and Youtube videos on tiny handheld screens, instead of blasting them over headphones and car speakers as we move about our world, navigating roadways, subways, and the company of unsympathetic crowds. What Coldplay do best is write anthems that become part of your own personal story — they have a cinematic way of making each of us feel like life is a movie with ourselves starring in the lead role. “Magic” and “A Sky Full of Stars” still do that, but the rest of Ghost Stories feels more vacant than spectral.
Broken relationships have fueled their fair share of timeless albums — Rumours, Tunnel of Love, and For Emma, Forever Ago — records that looked inward upon failure with such unblinking reflection and naked admission of regret that their revelations proved inescapable. By contrast, Ghost Stories is already fading from view. Even in the face of significant personal crisis, the depth of Martin’s emotions are dwarfed by the size of Coldplay as an institution, which is more troubling than any story on this record. The juxtaposition between Coldplay’s ubiquity and humbleness remains the band’s greatest gift, and may be the only thing that gets them back on track — a fact of which Martin seems well aware.
Just before debuting “Magic” at the 2014 SXSW festival, he coyly flattered his audience: “I can’t think of a better place to come out into the world than in the intimate surroundings of Austin with just a couple of hundred people.” After a laugh that was equal parts bluster and sadness, he winked: “And a couple of million online, you know.” Then the lead singer of the band that’s larger than life got back to doing what he loves, that simple spell-binding thing. He started to play and sing. He sounded, for a little while, right-sized.