Album Review and Retrospective: Coldplay – Ghost Stories

By on Monday, 19th May 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

2002: a curious time of innocence, and simultaneous loss of innocence. Momentous events occurred, their true consequences hidden in the folded future. The world was still struggling to accept 9/11. Parts of Europe embarked with blind optimism on their slow journey towards economic self-destruction by adopting the Euro. The country celebrated the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – 3 days later her sister died, and 3 months later, so did her mother. Coldplay released ‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’ – and while touring the album, Chris Martin would meet his future wife Gwyneth Paltrow. Momentous events all, but arguably only one has had a lasting effect on the popular music catalogue. And now that the Martin-Paltrow marriage has come to the end of its natural life, only one that has a break-up soundtrack all of its own.

Coldplay’s 2000 début ‘Parachutes’, is a modest, wimpy emulation of Nineties guitar-band tropes: gently-strummed acoustic guitars, some elementary guitar effects, clichéd and blissed-out lyrics (“We live in a beautiful world”, etc). But that world needed an album like it – inoffensive music that couples can agree they both can tolerate, with an irrepressibly optimistic worldview to boot. The rock ‘n’ roll operating envelope has at one end sweary, noisy, atonal punk – and for there to be a spectrum, something needs to occupy the other end. Step forward Coldplay.

The production on ‘Parachutes’ is shockingly bad, though: thoroughly over-compressed and lacking in the quirky ambition of something like Athlete’s ‘Vehicles And Animals’. The snare sound on their first mega-hit ‘Yellow’ is embarrassingly bad, a cross between a ping-pong ball being shaken in a jar and a side of ham slapped with a slipper. Chris Martin’s voice is either merely inoffensive or deeply irritating, depending on one’s tolerance for fey white boys moping about existential nonsense. Most of the time he could be mistaken for the sound of a goat stuck down a well. However, ‘Parachutes’ is a half-decent stab at a band attempting that most futile but well-worn endeavour: to recreate Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ for the mainstream. Many would attempt it – Athlete, Starsailor, Snow Patrol – and many would fail.

2002’s ‘A Rush of Blood to The Head’ is a much more mature piece of work. Everything is more grown-up: most of the tracks are over 5 minutes long; the opening track ‘Politik’ hints as to what’s to come: a far more adventurous arrangement than ever before, a tetchily cynical lyric from Martin, but still retaining the copyrighted Coldplay melodicity and optimistic overtures. That pesky snare drum makes an appearance once again in ‘In My Place’, although this time it sounds like someone popping an empty bag of crisps, with a nasty resonant ring for good measure. Despite this disability, the track reached #2 in the UK, and perhaps characterises the band’s approach to the whole album: an attempt to, if not completely rewrite the melodic rock rulebook, then at least dress it up in a fresh suit and introduce it to a new millenium.

‘God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’ has a nice chromatic chord sequence played on a grubby old acoustic guitar, ‘The Scientist’ is the ubiquitous piano ballad, soppy as ever, buy hey – something’s got to get those lighters in the air. ‘Clocks’ is an interesting one: there’s loads of keyboards, a big, uplifting piano crescendo, and almost completely meaningless lyrics. A sign of things to come, perhaps. The album concludes with a pair of tracks that are amongst Coldplay’s finest work. The title track puts their undoubted ability to deliver a decent crescendo into good use: with talk of firearms and arson, this is Coldplay taking on big themes, and mostly succeeding. ‘Amsterdam’ is similarly morose, the sour to the preceding overload of saccharine optimism. Talk of being “tied to the noose” is uncharacteristically downbeat – and it really suits them.

‘X&Y’ is essentially more of the same: ‘A Rush Of Blood…’, mark two. Despite the nods to orchestration and electronica, it’s still essentially the sound of a guitar band with enormous ideas. With hindsight the entirety sounds a little one-note, but there are standouts – ‘White Shadows’, ‘Talk’, ‘Speed Of Sound’, which confirm their ability to write a stadium-sized tune hadn’t been lost. And then came the inevitable – the concept album. ‘Viva La Vida’ was produced by Brian Eno, and he helped immensely to take Coldplay’s lofty ideas and craft them into something reasonably coherent and credible. The topics are ambitious, and, surprisingly enough, the music actually does them justice. Pertinently, the title track uses a four-to-the-floor synthesised bass drum, but doesn’t fall lazily into dance music tropes. Perhaps Coldplay’s most left-field single, the song tells the story of a deposed monarch mourning his own poor judgement that engineered such a fall from grace. A masterclass in concept songwriting that few could match.

Most importantly, despite the baubles, the album sounds like the work of one band playing real instruments – noisy guitars are still frequently front-and-centre, but even when they’re not, the orchestration sounds familiar, all of a piece. ‘42’ deserves a mention as a three-movement work that manages to glue together string-laden balladry, noisy, almost math-rock riffing, and the inevitable uplifting crescendo. A notable highlight in an already strong album. ‘Viva La Vida’ showcases a band merging populism, concept and the avant-garde – and succeeding. Coldplay’s masterpiece.

It’s in ‘Mylo Xyloto’ that the etiolated shoots of today’s folly were first to be heard. ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’ again uses a dance-inspired kick drum, lead synth stabs, and, mystifyingly, an electric guitar which sounds suspiciously like a set of bagpipes. The lyrics are embarrassing and subtly patronising like a leery uncle at a disco, and none of it holds the credibility of their preceding work. Ri-”autotune”-hanna pops up briefly and rather pointlessly. With lukewarm reviews and their worst sales to date, was this the sound of a band losing their way? What the album couldn’t convey, of course, was the power of the Coldplay live show, the potency of which is in no doubt. The combination of audience-participation wristbands, button-pushingly emotive material, and Chris Martin’s enthusiastic gyrations means very few people felt short-changed from 2011-2012’s worldwide jaunt, including that most prestigious of things – the Glastonbury headline slot. Questions of musical direction aside, in 2012 Coldplay were, and possibly still are, the most effective stadium-rock band in the world. There’s even a feature film of the whole affair, if proof were needed.

It is, then, with a heavy heart that we must turn to ‘Ghost Stories’. Be warned – every song is about losing Gwyneth. Every single one. The first line is “I think of you”, repeated ad nauseum in a number of different pitches and melodies, including that increasingly insufferable falsetto that he’s so keen on. Here’s a representative sample of lyrics – see if you can spot a pattern:

“I don’t want anybody else but you”
“All I know is I love you so much it hurts”
“One last time tell me you love me”

Give us a break. At least throw in a topic or two to change the mood, to get the bile going: perhaps something about tetanus, or Nick Clegg. But no, the whole thing is hewn from the most simpering of sentiment. There’s even a song called ‘True Love’, for fuck’s sake. Interestingly, the album’s only moment that isn’t cloyingly saccharine is the guitar solo in said track, when Jonny Buckland, in a rare moment of disobedience, briefly bends a note out of tune – an act of rebellion that hints at some power struggle going on underneath the surface. But, as quickly as it appears, it’s gone, and the usual bland normality is resumed. In a way it reminds the listener that this isn’t just one man’s folly, it’s four men’s. Five, if you count the otherwise credible Paul Epworth at the desk. Any one of them could have reigned in their depressive singer’s whines, it’s just that they didn’t have the guts, the self-perceived status, to do so. Cowards.

Rather than listening to the album straight, it’s much more fun to look up the track names in advance, and predict which moth-eaten lyrical cliché Martin is going to wheel out next. ‘Oceans’ is a good one for this – think distance, water, loneliness, and you’re on the right track. It really is music by numbers. Who, frankly, cares enough about Martin’s state of mind to wade through this tripe even once? There are far more important things on which to spend one’s time. On this evidence, if Martin is this much of a drip, then Gwyneth made the right call.

One is entitled to feel upset when one’s wife leaves. Such sorrow can be expressed in many different ways: some would choose to drown their sorrows in several tumblers of malt whisky, others in ill-advised trips to age-inappropriate nightclubs, yet more by riding a motorcycle at reckless speed. The obvious choice for catharsis if one is a musician is: make some music. But nowhere is it written that that music should be so obvious, so much of a collection of embarrassing pleas for things to back to the way they were, for the woman to overlook all the flaws and irritants that made her leave in the first place, and to come back just because you wrote a nice little tune about her.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp7NtW_hKJI[/youtube]

And then we get to the utter dross, the audible sewage, the musical runt that is ‘Sky Full of Stars’. If anyone was wondering if there was any way to really take a Coldplay album into the next league of terrifying banality, the answer has arrived: call in Avicii. The DJ equivalent of Matalan works his ‘magic’ by bringing in some recycled big disco beats and house synth stabs, converting what was already some pungent fromage into a whole over-ripe brie that’s been left in the sun for a week. Someone please take it away and dispose of it carefully. Every single crap house cliché is in there – predictable build-ups, tappy little percussion bits, filters, echoing vocal lines – you can almost hear the lasers. ‘Sky Full of Stars’ is the sound of Coldplay eating themselves, diving headlong into inadvertent self-parody, declaring, as has long been suspected but is at last confirmed, that they have completely abandoned any notion of musical integrity, and are in it for the cheap dollar. Why else would they prostitute themselves, prone on the altar of excruciating Euro-house, essentially simply pretending to be a band, as some young chap from Stockholm does all the hard work for them?

It all could have been so different. The Gwyneth break-up should have been a time of pause and contemplation for Martin, including a period of calm re-evaluation of his past work, of identifying where he’s gone right and where he’s gone wrong in his musical career to date. Perhaps going back to first principles with his band, working as a simple four-piece with basic instrumentation and respect for the song as their guiding ethos. People may have been pleased – impressed, even, to see a revived Coldplay shorn of theatricality, doing what they do best: catchy, mainstream rock tunes. Instead, we have this overblown load of old cobblers – the audible equivalent of a tear-stained handkerchief. An album that makes you cry – for all the wrong reasons.

3/10

‘Ghost Stories’, Coldplay’s sixth album, is out now on Parlophone.

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One Response

3:28 am
7th June 2014

this is the most biased and useless review i have ever read in my entire life. you do not have any journalistic integrity at all. no need to explain myself. it is so obvious

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