Chuck Klosterman once accused Coldplay of manufacturing “fake love as frenetically as the Ford fucking Motor Company.” Coldplay may manufacture fake love, but life manufactures real heartache, as the yawping press surrounding singer Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” from actress Gwyneth Paltrow reminds us. Whether or not that’s what we’re actually getting on Ghost Stories is rendered moot in the face of piteous lyrics like, “Cut me into two/Still believe in magic?/Yes I do,” from lead single “Magic.” Was anyone still wondering? At this point, Chris Martin sounds so much like Chris Martin that it would seem like sarcasm if only he weren’t so sincere.
But Martin finally has the archetypal experience for all the amorphously maudlin songs he’s been writing for the past decade and a half, and enough sense to pull back from the pop abyss that the mock opera of Mylo Xyloto was hurtling toward. He’s been pushing the same (unendingly and unerringly) attractive melodies on us for his entire career, and the relatively restrained production and arrangements on Ghost Stories may be the best settings for those melodies since the folky Britpop acoustics of Parachutes.
Ghost Stories isn’t the return to basics the band hinted at during interviews, nor does it need to be. Leaning on the diverse abilities of producers Paul Epworth, Timbaland, and Avicii, Coldplay has retooled their infrastructure, swapping the analog out for electronics that run deeper than the surface-level effects of Mylo Xyloto. The drum machine skittering out 32nd notes on opener “Always in My Head,” like a straightforward outtake from Thom Yorke’s back catalogue, gets put through its paces, though they’re mostly familiar exercises. In fact, we’ve seen much of the album before in different guises. “Magic” echoes the spacious indie pop of the xx, while “Midnight” rips off Bon Iver by way of Scandinavia and a vocoder. Take your pick between Jónsi and James Blake as the parallel for “O.”
Although incumbent on its source material, Ghost Stories avoids wholly rote repetition by porting a modicum of the strangeness and innovation of other artists into its own body, despite Martin’s clunky writing. Take, for instance, “Another’s Arms,” which opens up with a monophonic soprano, a haunting, almost liturgical melody line, before a frosted bass line kicks off some electro-pop momentum and Martin comes close to flattening the whole effect with his completely anodyne lyrics: “Late night watching TV/Used to be you here beside me.” Mila Fürstová, the Czech artist behind the exquisitely etched album art, does pseudo-medieval better than the band, but the soprano and the polyphonic (electronically augmented) choir that bookends the album, served up as a touchstone for apparitional mystery, will do in a pinch.
Given the emphasis throughout Ghost Stories on atmospherics, the artificial EDM machinations of “A Sky Full of Stars” seem in poor taste, like a ring-master trying to gin up a somber crowd. Eurovision, apparently, is blind to heartache. The gentle non sequiturs of the melody-less synth loops that end “Oceans” and the pitch-pushing thread of a guitar solo on “True Love” are more interesting departures, creating potentially abrasive textural moments. The album might have been stronger, perhaps, with more of such moments, but perennial nice-guy acts can’t afford much dissonance, and it’s predominately the gadgetry of “nice” that plays on.