Happy 5th Anniversary to Coldplay’s sixth studio album Ghost Stories, originally released May 16, 2014.
For a lyricist and musician such as Chris Martin, who has always worn his heart on his sleeve notes, a dramatic change in your personal life will always find its way into your art. So when, in 2014, Chris and Gwyneth Paltrow, his wife of over ten years, announced their “conscious uncoupling,” many expected him to retreat a little from the limelight. And who could blame him? With five albums and seemingly endless touring behind Coldplay, hiding away could have been a welcome respite from the pressure to do something, play something, say something.
But rather than retreat, Martin found solace in the comfort of melody and rhythms. A safe place to explore the whirlwind of emotions he was going through. More cathartic than commercially aimed, the material he was writing at the time, along with bandmates Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion, was an exploration of love, loss and lament. Or as Martin himself would later put it in a conversation with Zane Lowe, Ghost Stories is a journey of “unconditional love” that asks, “how do you let the things that happen to you in the past—your ghosts—how do you let them affect your present and your future?”
Careful not to label this a “break-up” album (which at its broken, fractured heart it is), the band present a collection of songs dealing with the private feelings of a very public breakup. As with any album focused on loss, an artist treads a very fine line with the listener between being self-indulgent in his moping or being purely surface level with their authenticity. Perhaps if this had been a solo album, it could have easily steered towards the overly melancholy. But we’re dealing with Coldplay as an entity and a band who has built a reputation on being (occasionally annoyingly) optimistic. So with this band mentality at work, Ghost Stories plays as honest and raw, lamenting and longing, reflective and ultimately hopeful.
Songs like album opener “Always In My Head” give us a hint of the new direction Coldplay is exploring here: a more intimate, stripped back approach contrasted against the more bombastic, anthemic notes of their previous release, Mylo Xyloto (2011). Here instead the music is ethereal, floating like the figurative “Ghost” of the album’s title. It’s a dreamy reminiscence of lost love and fighting the desperate urge to reconnect, as Martin sings, “But though I try / My heart stays still.” A hovering, simple melody carries us through the track as Martin looks back at what he’s lost, the mental anguish that plagues him (“I think of you / I haven’t slept” he sings in the opening line) and the acceptance of a great love that once was, now physically lost yet still remaining with him as he closes out the track with a somber, “This, I guess / is to tell you you’re chosen out / from the rest.”
Here, as he does on the brooding, spacious ambient feel of “Midnight,” and the haunting, aching of “Another’s Arms,” Martin chooses his words carefully, sparingly to give each maximum impact. His brevity is all telling, the pain all too real, and the hope all too fading.
These songs above the rest are particular somber, overflowing with lament and are clearly not the anthemic signature tunes Coldplay are best known for. And they are all the better for it. Rather than swooping the listener in with a gleeful guitar hook or blasting them with bombast (that will undoubtedly come later), these songs beckon you in, inviting you to sit with them in a dimly lit room, allowing them to share their secrets with you. By channeling his dismay, his most intimate of thoughts, fears and feelings and putting them down on the page, Martin manages to do so in a way that connects with millions around the world all experiencing their own breakups and living with their relationship failures.
Somber it might be. Heavy, yes. But dour and down it isn’t.
“Magic” retains a glimmer of hope. Though recounting, “I just got broken / broken into two,” Martin rescues the loss with the next line “Still call it magic / when I’m next to you.” There is a fondness present, an innocence still retained, and though no stranger to the heartache of love, Martin reaffirms his belief in its powers. The song’s mellow instrumentation with triphop inspired beats and a searching bassline ground the song in clay boots not letting it fly away to a fantasized idyllic place.
And that’s always been the beauty of the four forces of Coldplay. They have the ability to juxtapose idealism in the lyrics with a heavier arrangement or build an uplifting melody around a melancholy observation.
“Ink” is a great example of this. With a skipping beat and sweet guitar line, Martin cries out, “All I know / is that I’m lost / whenever you go / All I know / Is that I love you so / so much it hurts.” With a subtle callback to “Yellow,” Martin marks the shifting of time, of relationships running their course, and sets this against the permanency of a tattoo—a constant reminder of both the good and bad of love and a way of holding on or carrying it with him. As he sings, “the pain’s alright.”
With “Oceans” and the hidden track within a hidden track “O,” Martin keeps things this side shy of wallowing. “Oceans” is a bare bones acoustic telling of diminishing hope against the soft strumming of a guitar, while the piano led “O” finds Martin casting love as fleeting birds, here one moment, gone the next. Interestingly enough, as “O” finishes the track continues with a few minutes of silence before the atmospheric ambience that opened the album begins to play once more. Perhaps missed by casual listeners, this little musical addition sets you back to the start of the journey that is Ghost Stories, perhaps noting the cyclical nature of love and how we fall in, fall out, break up, move on, discover anew and get rebirthed in love. It’s a nice subtle nod to the overall theme of the album.
Strangely enough, the only song that feels mildly out of place is the biggest track off the album, “A Sky Full of Stars.” Produced by Coldplay and the late Avicii, the song is unabashedly joyous and upbeat. It pounds and bounces using every trick from the EDM playbook to perfectly capture the spirit of uplift. Placed as the final track on the album proper (with “O” considered a hidden track), the song dispenses with the melancholy and replaces it with light and ecstasy. It might be the full circle of Martin’s own journey through the pain of heartache that comes with the dissolution of a marriage (or any meaningful relationship for that matter) to the spark of something new found in someone new, and the promise and hope that this revelation contains. As Martin himself observed during the round of promotion for the album, “you’ve got to open yourself up to love and if you really do, of course it will be painful at times, but then it will be great at some point.”
Only 5 years on since its release, Ghost Stories might be the forgotten album of Coldplay’s canon. An album that didn’t set the world on fire, but did set the groundwork for a more jubilant outing with the unshackled A Head Full of Dreams (2015). If you haven’t revisited Ghost Stories in a while, take it for a spin. You’ll be surprised at just how soothing and warm this break-up album can be. A kind and beloved “conscious uncoupling” indeed.