Release Date: May 20, 2014
To Chris Martin, there’s nothing more terrifying than a broken heart. While love makes him see the world in rich, vibrant colors—from “Yellow” to “Green Eyes” to “Violet Hill”—the loss of it is as dark and engulfing as “Midnight” and “Oceans.” For much of his years in the spotlight, we’ve seen his life in Technicolor—a shiny, happy existence, with a glowing A-list actress for a wife and two babies whimsically named Apple and Moses—but now, freshly split from said luminous wife, we see a decidedly faded heart on Martin’s sleeve.
This doesn’t mean Ghost Stories is a bleak album. In fact, its deep sea of synth-encrusted pop glistens under a halo of angelic ambient touches and Martin’s ever-rosy perspective: “If you were to ask me, after all that we’ve been through/ Still believe in magic?/ Well, yes I do,” he coolly sings over a muted drum machine that throbs to the rhythm of a vigorous heart on first single “Magic.” The song’s a little funky, a little jangly, even a little minimal, and it’s the first bit of evidence that, with Martin realizing his greatest fear, his band has released some of their finest, most understated work in over a decade.
Part of Coldplay’s initial charm was their ability to wrap a sweet and simple sentiment into a delicate, succinct pop song. But with every album they got grander, glitzier, and ultimately cheesier (“Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”? Come on!), distancing themselves further from their audience by throwing out absurd statements (“You use your heart as a weapon/ And it hurts like heaven”) and building their crescendos to ridiculous heights. Restraint and intimacy had been forsaken. And while Martin and Co. still reach for the heavens here (starting with the angel wings on the album’s cover, and the seraphic choir ushering us in to opener “Always in My Head” and then gracefully carrying us out at the close of “O”), they do so more from an everyman’s level, vulnerably looking up at that mystical place for comfort that things are going to get better.
Compared to the sleek, grandiose flash of Coldplay’s last two albums—Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto, both underlined by help from Brian Eno—Ghost Stories feels as melancholically light and airy as Parachutes, while ironically sounding more like Eno (as interpreted by, say, Sigur Ros) in brooding ambient highlights like “Midnight” and “Oceans.” The former steadily builds from swift ticks to beats that wiggle like worms caught under a strobe light, as Martin’s voice visits Bon Iver’s vocoder-equipped cabin in the woods. “Oceans,” meanwhile, moves along with mournful acoustic strumming and Martin’s faintly cracked tenor shifting to and from falsetto, before ascending into an undulating drone.
Elsewhere, the band brings in some big names, which comes off as a superficial move in light of the album’s overall introspective tone. Timbaland offers a slow, bass-y bounce to bedroom weeper “True Love,” which climaxes with a moody, languid guitar solo straight out of John Mayer’s seduction handbook, and Avicii pumps up the piano-powered “A Sky Full of Stars” with his cathartic EDM swells, pleading you to swap the lighters for glowsticks, as Martin remains transfixed with astral imagery.
Which leads us to the celestial closer: Ghost Stories’ glistening “secret track” brings the album back to its beginning, but, more significantly, the title of the song itself, “O,” represents Coldplay’s entire journey coming full circle. The twinkling piano ballad recalls the Martin we met back in 2000: the hopeless romantic and perpetual stargazer, who will — broken heart be damned — eternally keep his head up in the name of love: “Still I always look up to the sky,” he wistfully croons. “Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you.”