Thursday, May 22, 2014

Coldplay's Ghost Stories: Intimate and Ethereal

My admiration for Coldplay has been stated before. If you like, you can checkout my other Coldplay entries. I was excited to learn a few months back that they were coming out with a new CD entitled Ghost Stories.  I managed to pick up my copy at the local Walmart May 19, the date of initial release.

I tried to stay away from what music critics had to say about Ghost Stories until after I listened to the CD several times. Usually with new music it takes multiple listenings before I form a final opinion. Sometimes the material is really great, like Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill, and I know instantly I love it. Sometimes the material is a disappointment, like Neil's Fork in the Road, and further listening is usually painful.

There is no such thing as a "bad" Coldplay album. Their first five studio records, dating back to 2000 (with so few records over such a period of time, no one can exactly accuse them of being prolific or whoring their sound for the sake of new albums) were various degrees of greatness.  Some, like A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) or Viva la Vida (2008), were greater than others, like X&Y (2005).  But even "average" Coldplay is a delightful experience for me.

I have now listened to the record over a dozen times so it is safe to consider what the professional press has to say about Ghost Stories.  Largely the reviews are mixed.  It is being referred to as “the most forgettable Coldplay album ever”, 
“should be applauded for scaling back the gaudy excesses of their previous albums”, “veering between cliché and uncomfortable detail never quite hits the mark”, and “there are a few moments where the band rests a little too heavily on easy listening or pop music clichés.”

Coldplay's critics grow larger as the band becomes evermore popular, that's just the way two-faced music criticism works. Generally speaking, the more popular something is the more reason there is to find something inadequate in the material. I don't buy this "kitsch argument" with quite that much high-browed simpleton enthusiasm. Nevertheless, there are qualified music critics who find Ghost Stories "tired", "ill-conceived", "mediocre", "aimlessly lethargic", etc.  You get the idea.

Indeed, Ghost Stories seems lightweight to me even now after so many listenings.  I mean, is there a tune on this album as great (though some find them “pretentious” or “over-blown”, I don’t) as "Paradise" or "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" from Milo Xyloto (2011)?  No.  But is there a genuinely "bad" tune on the CD?  Is Ghost Stories unworthy of release?  Far from it.  Get ready to experience a relaxed Coldplay, a subdued Coldplay, even a melancholy Coldplay (more than usual anyway), that still manages to sound interesting, to entertain and, yeah, to make me feel younger and more vibrant.

The record is inspired by the “conscious uncoupling” of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. For me, The Washington Post hits the nail on the head when it writes: “Ghost Stories is a retrenchment, a conscious return to the relative simplicity of the band’s debut, Parachutes.”  I recall when Parachutes (2000) first came out.  I thought “wow, this band has a great sound, a diverse and distinctive and relevant sonic range.” I was a Coldplay fan from then on. That album was very favorably received by music critics at the time. Coldplay would go on to become a super-band.  So has familiarity lead to complacency on the part of the band (as some critics infer) or on the part of the listener (needing for the bar to be constantly pushed higher)?  Perhaps.

My initial reaction was that of complacency when I listened to the CD.  But, as so often happens, I hear much more in the album today.  Somewhat appropriately, the most noticeable thing about Ghost Stories is an absence - the minimal use of guitarist Jonny Buckland.  The rocking riffs are almost nonexistent here as bassist Guy Berryman and percussionist Will Champion carry more of the load along with Martin, who has always been the central driving force of the band.

"Always in My Head" starts interestingly ethereal before sounding like “normal” slow-groove Coldplay, but ends up seeming too brief.  The first “hit” track, "Magic", does not do much for me.  It seems more like elevator music than something I really want to listen to.  “Ink” continues on with the same feel.  The lyrical and poignant “True Love” is a very smooth tune that raises the bar a bit and is more memorable with a simple Buckland riff featured within another ethereal (ie. heavily synthesized) sonic experience that continues without pause into “Midnight” which features some really nice harmonic vocals by Martin and Champion.  A wonderfully dreamy piece.  

I am overusing the word “ethereal” but I cannot think of a better one to describe “Another’s Arms” where Martin (again with Champion’s backing vocals) sings the tune probably most directly related to the break-up of his marriage.  The soft, easy sound misleads.  These lyrics are biting and distressing. This one may be the most interesting song on the record, and is certainly one of its best tracks.  This is followed by a nice acoustic ballad, “Oceans”, which is a good example of how Buckland’s guitar is marginalized as Martin croons in a melancholy fashion.  

A Sky Full of Stars” is my favorite song on the record.  It is also the CD's most “traditional" Coldplay tune. Finally, we get a really rocking Buckland riff and a driving, energetic sonic force. It seems kind of disjointed really from the rest of the record since it offers a positive and upbeat conclusion, transcending the delicate, glum-tinged textures of everything else presented.  Martin is powerful on piano with vocals that dwell on praise instead of remorse.  The song slowly builds and builds until you get the wonderful total Coldplay explosion that makes them such an incredible band to experience live. This song will play very well to concert audiences.  It is the only tune on the record that I want to crank-up on my stereo and dance to instead of lay back and reflect.  

But laying back and reflection is precisely appropriate for the album's finale, a song called "O".  This one is almost all Martin with his great vocals and a beautiful meandering piano.  It brings the record full circle.  Through angst and sadness, through loss and joy, there is, in the end, peace. 

Ghost Stories is obviously an intimate set of songs inspired by an intimate and painful experience. This is quite a startling (for some) contrast to more recent Coldplay.  Nothing better reflects this than to compare how the band performed at the time of this CD's release with how they performed live when Mylo Xyloto came out.  Back in 2011, the band streamed a live performance worldwide from Madrid before a large audience. For the release of Ghost Stories the band performed for a small audience of 800.  A more intimate gathering for much more intimate material.

Whatever anyone thinks of it, Ghost Stories has become the fastest selling album of 2014.  That is probably more a tribute to the band’s massive popularity rather than any specific material on the record.  Nevertheless, CD’s don’t sell like this if music lovers find them unpalatable.  For me, Ghost Stories is one of the Coldplay’s most distinctive moments.  This is Coldplay in ¾ time, perhaps a return to their roots.  It is relaxing rather than exhilarating.  I prefer Coldplay exhilaration. But, more than anything, I prefer that this great band explore its sonic boundaries. In that context, Ghost Stories is an easy exploration.

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