Coldplay’s last album, Mylo Xyloto, was such an exuberant, ecstatic dayglo monster that it seemed inevitable that the only way onward was to go in the opposite direction, to go ‘back to basics’ – which, on Ghost Stories, they have. It is not, however, a return to the style of Parachutes, though it does share that album’s sense of intimacy. Ghost Stories is such a radical departure from the Coldplay we’re used to that it has been widely misunderstood, and criticised for being something that it’s not. It’s not a ‘classic break-up album’ like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or The Jazz Butcher’s Condition Blue. What it is, is Coldplay’s dreampop album. Compare it to Cranes’ Particles And Waves and the similarities are striking: the electronic beats, the glitchy drums, the sense of stillness and space. It doesn’t quite go far enough in that direction for my liking – there’s nothing really wildly experimental or even original here; Coldpay play things safe musically and lyrically – but it is a beautifully crafted album, put together with much thought and skill. And the title actually means something this time: the songs are all about actions of the past haunting the present.
It opens with the sound of angels crooning leading into Always In My Head, which sets the agenda perfectly. A woozy, dreamy stroll with Martin mumbling away about lost love, sounding not at all bothered. Then comes Magic, which is, admit it, a classic Coldplay single. Clever, catchy, lovely, it’s up there with their best. Then comes Ink, which compares the pain of love to the pain of inking the body, over a simple, even cheesy melody. True Love comes next, one of the best songs here. It shares a smilar sound to Ink, and at first sounds superficial and bland. But the lyric: ‘Tell me that you love me and if you don’t , Lie to me’ makes the song’s bland title quite dark, if you think about it. There’s a brilliant, brief, guitar solo towards the end that makes you realise how little guitar work there is on Ghost Stories, but it’s not a really problem as this is not a guitar rock album – as I have already said, it’s dreampop.
And next up is the culmination of this: Midnight, the album’s standout track, and the biggest departure from the usual Coldplay sound, though anyone who has listened to (say) Brian Eno will realise how unoriginal this track is. That said, it is a thing of ethereal beauty, and the nearest to the sound of Particles and Waves it ever gets. The way it builds to its twinkling climax is spellbinging. Next up is Another’s Arms, where Martin moans about missing watching TV with his bird. Naff lyrics do not ruin a lovely song. A word now about Chris Martin’s voice – he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he is in absolutely stunning form here, his voice soars and swoops and croons, sometimes wordlessly, reminding me sometimes of Sigur Ros (as does the album cover, come to think of it). Ghost Stories represents Martin’s finest vocal performance to date.
Then comes Oceans, the album’s other key track. A sonar blip replaces a drumbeat and guitars gently strum and the whole thing ends in two minutes of ambient drone and surging sea sounds. Beautiful! I wish the album could have moved more in this direction, but hey. This is Coldplay, they are trad, not rad. Sky full of Stars comes next, a re-tread of Every Tearbrop is a A Waterfall and, although more uptempo than the rest of the album, it does not seem as out of place as others have said. In fact its sense of dislocated, majestic yearning fits right in, and those stars in that sky reference back to Midnight. Final track O is seven minutes long, but isn’t really: it’s a sweet piano piece called Fly On, a big gap, then a reprise of the opening fanfare, so leave the CD (remember them?) playing because it brings the album full circle in a satisfying and beautiful way. Overall, then, Ghost Stories represents a new direction for Coldplay and an artistic peak for Chris Martin. It will convert no-one (in fact perhaps the opposite) but somehow I don’t think that matters one bit.