The only ghosts on Ghost Stories, Coldplay's sixth studio effort, are the ones of a band that’s now left the building.
So this is Coldplay trying to make a Sigur Rós record as Mylo Xyloto was them trying to make an M83 album.
Irony has now come full circle for Coldplay. Back when the band's unassuming debut Parachutes was released in 2000, it found itself, like so many other LPs by male British alternative outfits of the time, flooded by a sea of Radiohead comparisons. Given how brightly the star of that most revered of British rock groups was shining at the time, it makes sense that the affable, piano-driven rock of Coldplay seemed sub-par to those who fancied themselves as having finer tastes. (The year 2000 saw the release of Radiohead's Kid A, and not long after the establishing of its "greatness-as-a-foregone-conclusion" narrative.)
To anyone who actually listened to Parachutes -- to say nothing of Coldplay's entire career after the fact -- the Radiohead comparison is at best weakly and superficially true. Sure, both groups are comprised of pasty white Brits fronted by a guy with a falsetto, but any other attempts to liken one to the other wear thin after that. (See also: Muse.) There may be more than a few moments of "High and Dry"-esque balladry on Parachutes, but despite frontman Chris Martin's self-deprecating behavior with the press, at its best Coldplay has never been about straight forgery. Nevertheless, the accusations of copycatting have persisted throughout the band's entire career. Now, however, with Ghost Stories, the sixth LP by this global pop/rock juggernaut, the criticisms have found sure footing. The irony of it all is simple: for all the time Coldplay has spent trying to push past the criticisms that it merely borrows from the trends that surrounds it, in trying to move forward sonically it has given in to those very criticisms.
On LPs like A Rush of Blood to the Head, to this day its best work, Coldplay has lived by the ethos that T.S. Eliot was getting at when he said, "Poems are made up of other poems." Amidst the Joe Satriani lawsuit scandal Coldplay faced as a result of the lead single off of Viva la Vida, its fourth record, Martin admitted, "I think as much as possible we look at what other people are doing and try and steal all the good bits from all of them."
A cynical observer would take Martin's comments to mean that Coldplay is in the business of merely ripping others off, but in reality his remarks are an honest admission of how a lot of artists write their music. Yes, guitarist Jonny Buckland clearly has an affinity for U2. And sure, maybe the Radiohead criticisms held some water from time to time. But in spite of the places where the reference points come across as obvious, Coldplay nonetheless managed to forge its own sound. The arena-filling piano chords, the sappy if honest emotionality, the clunky lyrics -- it's the complete package as far as mainstream rock is concerned, and as the saying goes, millions of Coldplay fans can't be wrong.
Ghost Stories, however, proves that they can be wrong. Billed as a sort of concept album about going through the stages of loss, the album is clearly a product of the now-failed marriage of Martin and actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who called their dissolution a "conscious uncoupling". (Martin's lyrics clearly wore off on her.) In a move that's quite surprising, particularly since this band is not known for subtlety, the music of Ghost Stories is not compositionally overblown or emotionally overwrought.
Nothing here reaches the levels that "Fix You" so saccharinely did on 2004's X&Y. Perhaps counterintuitively, that result probably would have been better than the nine tracks that make up Ghost Stories. While the mood of this LP is one of measured melancholy, in terms of composition this quartet decided to merely pull from whatever trends in contemporary indie rock they found appealing (or, maybe, they think others find appealing). For a record whose lyrics are meant to reflect a deeply personal music journey, the music finds Coldplay at the safest and most rote it has ever been.
Following an entirely safe opener in "Always in My Head" -- there's Buckland with his Edgeisms again -- the band pulls off what has to be the most boring impression of the xx with "Magic". This is a particularly odd attempt to sound relevant, given that Coexist didn't stick nearly as successfully with the public as much as the xx did, but at this point is seems that Coldplay is willing to latch on to anything so long as it "spices things up". That being said, "Magic" at least has the benefit of being catchy in spite of how much of a clone it is; "Midnight," on the other hand, finds Coldplay's "look at what other people are doing and try and steal all the good bits from all of them" strategy at its worst.
"Midnight" goes beyond aping into the realm of forgery, with Martin sounding like he spent all of 2011 listening to Bon Iver, Bon Iver on loop. Coldplay has long played around with indie tropes, as seen previously on 2011's uneven misfire Mylo Xyloto. Alongside mainstream collaborations like "The Princess of China" (with Rihanna), the group tried its hand at indie-friendly electronic subgenres like EDM, which based on the scattershot songwriting of Mylo Xyloto it wasn't all that equipped to handle. But where that album used those indieisms as influences on the music, Ghost Stories basically straight-rips from them.
But for all the shout-outs to indie giants on Ghost Stories, Coldplay can’t resist the pop impulses that have remained persistent in its music, even in its most divergent experiments. The bouncy, synth-driven chorus of “A Sky Full of Stars” practically screams “REMIX THIS!” -- perhaps the band is hoping that some intrepid electronic musician (let’s say Tiësto) will do for it what Bassnectar did for fellow Brit Ellie Goulding. "A Sky Full of Stars" also brings to the forefront Martin's struggle to write lyrics that aren't hackneyed; what does it mean, exactly, for a person to be "a sky full of stars?"
On the closing track, the reflective piano ballad "O" (one of the few bright spots on Ghost Stories), Martin ponders, "A flock of birds/That's how you think of love." What a thought that is. At this point in time, it seems like one has to buy into the flaw of high school poetry-worthy lyrics in order to buy into Coldplay; even A Rush of Blood to the Head, great a record though it is, had its lexical foibles. Yet somehow, in spite of the pretty obvious fact that Martin is no poet, it is still disappointing to see a lack of progress on that front.
Ghost Stories opens and closes with what an angelic choir of voices -- ghosts from beyond the void, presumably, or the spirits of a relationship now in the past. Despite all the emotional gravitas and metaphysical significance Coldplay wishes to impart with this album, the tunes are too flat to hit home at their best and perilously teetering over the edge of plagiarism at their worst. At least with previous albums, even when sentimentality drenched the quartet's songwriting, it was obvious that the songwriting was earnest. At least once upon a time there was a sense that Coldplay's "borrowing" from other musicians had the noble purpose of crafting a unique sonic.
Alas, the only ghosts on Ghost Stories are the ones of a band that’s now left the building.