Give Coldplay this: After its biggest-selling album and most successful tour, a $110 million jaunt across the world’s arenas and stadiums with big anthems to match, the quiet, insular “Ghost Stories” (Atlantic) was hardly expected.
Chris Martin and his bandmates paid lip service to the idea of stripping back their sound on the 2011 “Mylo Xyloto,” but instead veered toward the epic, collaborating closely with U2 studio guru Brian Eno. “Ghost Stories” goes in the opposite direction. Eno is gone. Instead, as many as nine producers share credits on certain tracks – including heavy hitters such as Avicii, Timbaland and Paul Epworth. But they’ve been tasked with de-producing the tracks: subtracting any hint of grandeur until only a hollowed-out intimacy is left.
Its closest cousin in the Coldplay canon is the British quartet’s first album, “Parachutes,” released in 2000. That album still sounds fresh because of its clean, melodic minimalism, its sparseness underlining the simple but evocative melodies and lyrics. “Ghost Stories” aspires to a similar directness, only this time the mood is a good deal more somber. The backdrop for many of these songs is inescapable: Martin’s troubled relationship with his wife, actress Gwyneth Platrow. The couple announced they were separating earlier this year, and the songs play like a soundtrack to the break-up.
Reverb swallows undulating guitars and piano. Barely-there percussion percolates and sometimes vanishes. Martin’s voice is at its most fragile, frequently finding falsetto notes that sound like faint whimpers. He offers small details about his unwanted solitude: watching late-night TV alone, observing a flock of birds who arrive one minute and “next you know they’re gone.” The songs strive for a hypnotic, dream-like atmosphere with repeating phrases: “You’re always in my head”; “Tell me you love me, if you don't then lie to me”; “Leave a light on in the dark”; “I don’t, no, I don't, no, I don't want anybody else but you.”
The hooks – usually served up as sweeping gestures on most Coldplay albums – arrive sparingly and with subtlety: the lyrical guitar riff in “Ink,” the counterpoint keyboards that whisper in “True Love,” the wordless female vocal in “Another’s Arms.” And sometimes the songs have no hooks at all, as in the ambient gloom of “Midnight” and the vast emptiness of “Oceans,” with percussion blips dripping out like a leaky faucet. The latter song doesn’t end so much as recede, as if the narrator who mumbles that “I’m ready for the pain” is being pulled under a wave.
Only “A Sky Full of Stars” rises out of the gray swirl with its Avicii-imported dance beat. It offers a hint of hope, before slipping back into despair. Variation, once a strong suit of Coldplay’s songwriting, isn’t much in evidence. Over nine songs, Martin and company create a mood and then stick with it – to a fault.
2 stars (out of 4)