Coldplay: Ghost Stories review – Chris Martin's heartache hasn't inspired poetry

Their frontman's marriage breakup sees Coldplay consciously uncoupling the band's music from the swaggering melodies of old – but the lyrics are still humdrum

The tracklisting for Coldplay's sixth album was announced on 3 March, almost three weeks to the day before singer Chris Martin and his wife Gwyneth Paltrow announced their separation, by way of a brief post that appeared amid the recipes for pasta with dandelion leaves and quinoa-stuffed kiobtcha on the latter's website, Goop. It didn't take a genius to link the contents of the first document with the second: there was always a chance that songs called things like Another's Arms and Always in My Head might navigate similar emotional terrain to Boney M's Hooray! Hooray! It's a Holi-Holiday!, but it didn't seem terribly likely.

The realisation that Ghost Stories is Coldplay's divorce album might even cause someone hitherto uninterested in the band's oeuvre to feel a certain prickle of interest. As they've gone about the business of selling 70m albums, one of the most persistent criticisms aimed at them is that, for all its undoubted ability to entice stadium audiences to lift their lighters aloft, their music is so fixated on moving vast crowds of people that it doesn't deal in anything other than universally applicable but ultimately hollow generalities: what a recent New York Times review damningly called "sympathetic songs [that] serve as stand-ins for feeling … a clear outline to fill in". Perhaps a dose of public heartbreak might provide some substance.

Ghost Stories signposts its emotional temperature from the off: it opens with a female choir, wordless and sorrowful, who give way to a distinctly muted variation on Coldplay's patented mesh of echoing guitar and Chris Martin singing, "I think of you, I haven't slept." It sets the tone of the album, which proceeds to do all the things you'd expect – echoing guitars, wafty electronics, elegiac piano ballads that swell into anthemic territory, tasteful string arrangements, falsetto vocals – only more dolefully than before.

Anyone hoping Ghost Stories might offer a glimpse into the complex workings of a soul undergoing the trauma of divorce, juxtaposing a variety of contrasting emotions along the way, is going to be disappointed. Ghost Stories is an album that, metaphorically speaking, just mopes about the place in its dressing gown, too sorry for itself to do or say much. It sighs and stares out of the window at some birds (O), sighs and looks at the telephone, which doesn't ring (Oceans) and has a wistful little think about the good times (True Love). Another's Arms finds it slumped alone in front of the telly, glumly ruminating that it's nicer watching the telly with someone else, especially if that someone else is giving you a cuddle.

You might point out that this is an accurate depiction of misery, that heartbreak is actually a pretty mundane business that does indeed involve much moping about the place in your dressing gown and slumping in front of the telly. Moreover, as anyone who's ever tried consoling a heartbroken friend will tell you, they tend to talk in precisely the kind of platitudes on offer here: "It feels like there's something broken inside", "I love you so much it hurts", "I don't want anyone else but you." In response, you might equally reasonably point out that it's the job of an artist to find the extraordinary in the everyday, to take a universal, mundane experience and say something insightful or striking or original or witty about it. If you can't, don't bother getting changed out of your dressing gown: you might as well stay slumped in front of Bargain Hunt until you can be bothered to get up.

As it is, Ghost Stories proves a rather chastening experience for anyone who believes Martin's lyrics dealt in cliches because he had one gimlet eye permanently fixed on mass appeal. No, it suggests, that's just the way he writes, even with his gaze fixed inward, lost in his own personal misery. There's no doubt Ghost Stories is a beautifully-produced album, full of lovely sonic details: glitchy, clicking drum patterns high in the mix, the sonar-like noise that runs through Oceans in lieu of a beat, the way the piano riff of A Sky Full of Stars gradually gives way to a vast, EDM-like synth. There are certainly nice tunes, but the music seems to have consciously uncoupled itself from the swaggering, shameless melodies that peppered Coldplay's previous albums: there's nothing here built along the undeniable lines of Paradise or Viva La Vida or The Scientist.

Whether that's an act of bravery or evidence of a lack of inspiration is a moot point, but in their absence, the most striking things here are the tracks that shift furthest away from the standard Coldplay blueprint: the lovely, beatless, vocoder-heavy drift of Midnight – based on an old track by electronic auteur Jon Hopkins – and the single Magic, which sounds not unlike the kind of beautifully understated pop song Everything But the Girl might have come up with in their mid-90s dance music phase.

The rest is understated and equivocal, pleasant but underwhelming. It begs indulgence, then doesn't do enough to repay it. That's the problem with moping around in your dressing gown: eventually people's sympathy wears out.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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