My name is Andre and I like Coldplay.
I know, I know. That’s how you know I’m gay. I’ve heard it. I like a lot of bands that earn me raised eyebrows, particularly from the hipper-than-thou crowd, but few of them make me as defensive as Coldplay. I’ve liked them since their first album in 2002, I liked them when they became international superstars, I liked them even when I couldn’t escape them (the “Fix You” years were difficult), and I like them now.
Hating Coldplay has become something of a sport, with people lining up to throw the first punch whenever Chris Martin and company rear their pretty heads. I’ve never been down with that. It’s not that I don’t understand where people are coming from. Generally speaking, sentimentality is frowned upon, particularly plain-spoken sentimentality. (See also: Keane.) When pretty people sing popular songs about love with no ironic distance, people get wary. They’re not sure they should trust it. For most of Coldplay’s lifespan, Martin has been a multi-millionaire married to Gwyneth Paltrow. We’re supposed to hate him. It’s what we do.
I get it. I just don’t agree with it. If Coldplay were the bland, safe band their detractors think they are, I’d have a bigger problem with what they do. But for one of the most popular bands in the world, Coldplay is decidedly weird. The last time they reliably sounded like Coldplay was in 2005, on the lackluster X&Y. The loud-and-clear message of this record: here’s a band who needs to shake things up. And so they did, bringing in Brian Eno to produce the oddball collage Viva La Vida in 2008, and they haven’t stopped shaking it up since.
If you passed on Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto, you missed Coldplay’s most bizarre and creative work. On the former album, they sounded like a band unleashed, bringing in dozens of different influences. They went darker on “Cemeteries of London,” ducked down a prog-rock alleyway on “42,” took a little Talking Heads medicine on “Strawberry Swing.” Most of all, they never sat still – Viva La Vida packs two albums’ worth of strange rock into 45 minutes. Mylo Xyloto was a concerted attempt to bring those all-over-the-place influences back to their pop roots, but in a lot of ways, it’s even weirder. “Charlie Brown,” “Major Minus,” the Rhianna duet “Princess of China,” even “Paradise” – this is the work of a restless band, not content to do what’s expected of them. That they’ve had any radio play at all since 2005 is almost inexplicable.
But those records are feel-good hits of the summer compared with their sixth album, Ghost Stories. It is, without doubt, their most beautiful, a hushed and compact collection of wispy laments and half-remembered dreams. This is an album designed to be listened to front to back, as a single thought. Nearly every song is airy and contemplative, a sad and brokenhearted exhale. Ghost Stories was clearly crafted as a whole, as an experience, and it’s the band’s most successful artistic statement.
It’s also, clearly, the Martin/Paltrow breakup album. If Martin’s lyrics have been a stumbling block for you before, you will want to steer clear of this record. It is his most honest and personal set of songs, which can only mean that Martin’s genuine, rip-your-soul-out heartbreak really is this mundane. Martin spends most of this record feeling sad – he’s sad watching television on “Another’s Arms,” wishing “you were here beside me, your body on my body.” He’s sad waiting for the phone to ring on “Oceans,” he’s sad watching a flock of birds fly through the sky on “O,” he’s sad thinking about that tattoo he now regrets on “Ink.”
Martin’s heartache is straightforward and simplistic throughout Ghost Stories, to the point where I wish he had probed deeper. On “True Love,” he puts his all into the line “tell me you love me, and if you don’t then lie to me.” This has been spoken and sung 20 million times, in many different forms, but Martin treats it like it’s a new thought. And perhaps for him, it is. I know I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt like saying that honestly, but maybe he truly feels this way. I’m more inclined to believe that he’s simply an unoriginal lyricist than that he’s aiming for universal and coming up with trite. But trite it is. Ghost Stories needs Martin’s words to tie it together, but you’ll wish they weren’t so pedestrian.
The lyrics bother me on this album more than any other the band has made, simply because the music is so beautiful. I cannot emphasize this enough – listen to Ghost Stories in sequence, all at once. It opens with “Always In My Head,” more of a prologue than anything else. Jonny Buckland’s subtle, ethereal guitar glides in on a bed of atmospheric synths while Martin addresses this album’s subject directly: “you’re always in my head, always in my head.”
This barely qualifies as a song, and it’s more of a lead-in to “Magic,” the sparkling first single. It’s got an R&B beat, some gentle work from bassist Guy Berryman, some lovely electric pianos and a strangely insidious melody line. The song builds gradually, never overplaying its hand, so when Buckland’s full-throated chords come charging in, it feels like something special. “Ink” is slipperier, with its electronic beat and circular acoustic figure. In his worst moment on the album, Martin yells out “Got a tattoo and the pain’s all right.” But the central idea, of regretting a tattoo once the relationship it represents dissolves, is solid.
“True Love” is the album’s one moment of real sappiness, with its Mike and the Mechanics guitars and big synths supporting Martin’s wavery falsetto. But I’m a big fan of the jarring guitar solo, sliding out of nowhere in the wrong key and continuing to dirty up the song as it goes. The band has described this as their favorite song, and it’s my least favorite, so there you go. But I adore “Midnight,” which tiptoes in after “True Love,” as if to signal the start of a darker ride. The band again worked with ambient electronic artist Jon Hopkins, and they crafted a pulsing, beatless wonder. Martin stacks his vocals and processes them, a technique that has reminded some of Bon Iver. But Justin Vernon has never given us a song like “Midnight,” with its shadowy electronic shimmies and supple, chorus-free melody.
“Another’s Arms” picks up the pace imperceptibly, opening with an operatic female vocal and a featherbed of fluttering drums and low-key synths. Buckland refuses all opportunities to show off on this record, preferring to offer accents and atmospheres, and his clean guitar tones make this song. The melody is simple yet insidious. “Oceans” keeps the mood low and melancholy – for most of the running time, it’s played on an acoustic guitar and a beeping bit of electronic percussion. Martin sounds weary here, ready to pack it in, and not even the supple strings can cheer him up: “And to find that you’re alone in this world, to find yourself alone…” Again, this is a song without a chorus, just a lovely meandering melody.
What follows is more than a minute of cloudy keyboards, leading into “A Sky Full of Stars,” the record’s one moment of pure bliss. It feels like new love, like sunshine through dark windows. The song is a collaboration with dance music superstar Avicii, and its booming beat builds organically until it’s almost too joyous. Not much happens in this song, but not much has to – in its place near the end of this record, it does what it’s supposed to perfectly. The album then ends with “O,” a mournful piano piece that seems to put to rest this melancholy mood. It remains low-key and simple, but gorgeous, a fine and fitting end to the band’s most heartfelt record.
Now of course, Martin spends all of “O” ruminating on a flock of birds as a metaphor for lost love. I get it, I really do. I know why people hate this band. But if you can show me another act at Coldplay’s level of popularity and fame that would be willing to make an album like Ghost Stories, in defiance of everything they’re supposed to be, I will be very surprised.
Virtually nothing on this album sounds like the Coldplay that took the world by quiet storm. It is the sound of four people making the most beautiful, heartbroken record they possibly could, regardless of record sales or market expectations. That in itself is something of an act of defiance, but even that doesn’t seem to matter to Coldplay, a band only concerned with how far they can push themselves each time out.
As I said, Coldplay doesn’t have to be this weird. The fact that they are, that they continue to make albums like Viva La Vida and Mylo Xyloto and Ghost Stories, keeps me coming back. Ghost Stories is a strange and wonderful little record, and I am not ashamed to say I like the band that made it. I have no idea where they will go next, and that alone makes me excited to follow what this band does. My name is Andre and I like Coldplay. I expect I always will.
Next week, getting the blues with the Black Keys and Noah’s Arcade. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.