Coldplay became the biggest rock band in the world just as the very concept began to seem antiquated. Like a mass-market retailer nicking fashion trends and looks from high-end designers and runway shows, Chris Martin and company rose to prominence by distilling the sounds of their ancestors and critically feted contemporaries into hyper-melodic, stadium-sized anthems. On their first two albums, Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head, they sanded down the arty, oft-angular rock of U2, David Bowie, and Radiohead, rendering it gentler and more easily listenable; songs like “Yellow” and “The Scientist” found traction amongst the great middle and were assimilated into the pop canon almost immediately. That sound was taken to its logical extent on X&Y, an ambitious but bloated document that found the band sprinkling their compositions with string arrangements and electronic flecks.
So with no room left to expand, Coldplay enlisted legendary producer Brian Eno to help broaden and refine their sound. The result was 2008’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, an eclectic, relatively succinct collection of pop songs complete with digressions into shoegaze, Afro-pop, and crunching rock. Three years later, Mylo Xyloto found the band steering even further into pop-friendly terrain, cribbing from kinetic and heartsick indie bands in equal measure for a concept record about love at the end of the world. As their sound evolved, they remained anchors of the music industry, even as more straightforward strains of pop and hip-hop became indisputably dominant in a commercial sense; their sales remained strong, even as many of their peers struggled to keep pace.
It’s good to remember that history when considering the band’s sixth studio album, Ghost Stories, which finds them once again employing the sonic approach they have perfected, albeit with different source material. Much of the album sounds like Coldplay’s take on an acclaimed vein of gentle, emotionally vulnerable music that explores the overlapping realms of rock, R&B, and electronic sounds: the woodsy, warped hymns of Bon Iver, James Blake’s throbbing confessionals, the muted pillow talk of the xx. There is one major outlier, a pounding quasi-EDM collaboration with the popular producer Avicii; it reeks of pandering. (A team-up with Timbaland, “True Love,” fares a little better.) The frosty, meandering “Midnight” bears this influence most heavily, twisting Martin’s signature nimble, soft falsetto through a vocoder and layering it like dead leaves left on a forest floor, but there are lesser signs scattered throughout the album: the simple beat-driven intro that kicks off “Magic,” the skittering percussion that drives the weepy “True Love,” the haunted choir behind “Another’s Arms.” Martin’s vocals mostly pair well with this new, adjusted direction, but the heightened focus on groove and piano-based melody marginalizes the typically dependable contributions of lead guitarist Jonny Buckland; gleaming six-string hooks of the sort that anchored the best songs on the band’s first few albums are few and far between here.
But for all the sonic shifts that take place on Ghost Stories, the album’s greatest break from Coldplay’s tradition is lyrical. Never one to shy away from a platitude or a vague, potentially universal statement about life and love, Martin’s recent “conscious uncoupling” from his wife, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, has inspired his rawest, most personal writing to date. The set of lines that opens “Another’s Arms” neatly encapsulates the album’s pained, stingingly detailed tone: “Late night watching TV, used to be you here beside me / Used to be your arms around me, your body on my body.” Every song on the album seems to pack at least one comparable couplet; Martin can’t help but chronicle his despair and regret, lament their shared failure, or glance fondly at the magic he and Paltrow once shared. The loss of grandeur that seeps through Ghost Stories — the lack of scale, the smallness — begins to make sense in this context: as Martin has shrunk his lyrical universe from the broadly applicable to the cringe-inducingly personal, the band’s compositions have shrunk in turn.
While the dissolution of Martin’s marriage makes for undeniably compelling lyrical fodder, his personal experience may be writing checks his songwriting expertise can’t cash: his veering between cliché and uncomfortable detail never quite hits the mark when it comes to adequately realizing his feelings. It’s only when his voice, and the melodies that make up Ghost Stories, are able to bear the emotional weight, that the album achieves the resonance that made its predecessors world-beating hits.