It’s unlikely that many people were clamoring for a demure Coldplay record, considering the band already had a partially deserved reputation for delivering various shades of vanilla. But Ghost Stories, Coldplay’s sixth, strips away the pomp and bombast of 2011’s Mylo Xyloto almost completely. Even the color scheme of this new record directly contrasts the garish Technicolor of the last one, choosing detailed gray-on-blue sketches. What will the guys’ matching tour outfits look like this time around—monochromatic, linen jumpsuits?
The very public story, fully endorsed by singer Chris Martin, is that Ghost Stories details his feelings related to the breakup of a long relationship. That’s a tale as old as concept albums themselves, though this one is more tabloid-ready considering the other half of Martin’s “conscious uncoupling,” Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s no wonder he’s not feeling up to arena-sized songs, and Martin does a touching though frequently ham-handed job of working through his feelings, at least on eight of these nine tracks.
Though a couple of songs feel undercooked—specifically “Another’s Arms” and album closer “O”—Ghost Stories mostly works: “Always In My Head” goes super simple, with a wash of synths and an uncomplicated guitar line way in the background, and “Magic,” if you can get past the lyrics, plays like Coldplay’s early, most melancholy B-sides. (If you do listen to the lyrics, you’ll find a perfect human being who even does a very public breakup with ease. It’s almost sickening.) “Ink” similarly clunks with its words, but musically recalls ’80s Peter Gabriel in the best ways. “True Love” treads similar ground, though a nasty little guitar solo—clearly meant to signify emotional turmoil—drops in to cock things up.
And then there’s the blatantly pandering, album-interrupting, mood-fucking-up “A Sky Full Of Stars,” which is destined to be a hit and also instantly dated. (And not even dated to now, but to early last year.) The song features Swedish progressive house king Avicii, whose signature piano/beats combination renders every song he’s a part of—at least those popular on radio stations with “B” or “Hot” or “Kiss” in their names—almost exactly the same. It’s a weirdly odious reach for Coldplay, a band that, despite a tendency to drive down the middle of the road, should have known better. It’s the 2014 equivalent of hiring a rapper to contribute a verse to your alt-rock song; it might seem like a wise idea, but it ultimately cheapens the whole endeavor. It’d be one thing if it were good, or even mildly convincing, but it feels link a stink bomb dropped into an otherwise solemn wake.