Aural Impressions: Coldplay, Ghost Stories

Yes, I’m doing another Coldplay Aural Impressions piece.  When I wrote the last one in December, I’d not anticipated a full-length Coldplay album to follow so soon after.  After it was announced on the first day of March, I sat there just as shocked as everyone else, after months of silence from the band (excluding the cryptic, seemingly stand-alone Midnight video a week earlier).  In fact, the Midnight video seemed to me to indicate that it was going to be a much longer wait for new material.  Evidently not.  Now it’s deep into May, my favorite month, and the early-summer atmosphere is perfect for new Coldplay.  My first listen to probably 80% of their discography occurred during this time of year, so it’s only fitting.  Now that the album is out there on the internet, let’s take a peek at the tracks:

  1. Always In My Head: Airy synth and choral vocals welcome the listener to this new collection before trademark Jonny Buckland guitar arpeggiates over light drums.  It’s not a hard opener like Politik or Hurts Like Heaven, rather it gently introduces the album with a more relaxed, low-key, yet slightly gloomy song about longing.  Musically it doesn’t vary too much throughout and ends in a cascade of electronic high hats before it even thinks about getting going.  Not the most memorable opener, however it certainly sets a tone, one that carries through the next seven songs.  First impression: there’s something very X&Y about it.  I’ll have to dissect where that feeling comes from over repeated listens.
  2. Magic: Beginning with solo bass and an electronic beat, I thought, had the progression taken a darker, minor-key turn, this might have been Radiohead.  The minimalism is a breath of fresh-air after the bombastic stadium-filling sounds of Mylo XylotoMagic is a simple song driven by a steady bass and shallow lyrics, around which numerous music flourishes enter and go, background beeps, sampled guitar strums, programmed piano, and trademark chiming guitar.  The falsetto vocal hook is classic Coldplay amidst new territory for the band.  Somehow it gets stuck in my head a lot.  It’s also really fun to play on the bass with its thirds.  The subtle changes in the instrumentation throughout, especially in the drums, definitely draw me in.  There’s actually a lot going on here that requires multiple listens to fully appreciate.  Like this new sound or not at first, I can say it’s certainly grown on me in the last two months.
  3. Ink: Lots of reverbing pads and percussion usher in this next song, featuring a light guitar, or is that some kind of synth pad?  Maybe both?  More electronic drums give this track a slight rhythm n’ blues feel amid the airiness of the pads.  I’m not sure how to exactly describe this, but the instrumentals together sound almost like a Nintendo DS chip-tune if it were somewhat modernized.  There’s something very old feeling about it as the guitars and synth blips float a little bit above and below the root of the song’s key.  The mantra at the end is easily repeatable and catchy, something that’s becoming another theme of Ghost Stories.
  4. True Love: Well, it seems the electronics and samples are here to stay.  Low resolution pizzicato strings jump around below strings and simple percussion.  The chords change from major to minor quickly and somewhat troublingly halfway through the verses, returning to major at the ends  The lyrics, despite the possibly sappy title, are incredibly dark and sad.  Lead guitar in the bridge enters very dissonantly, bending up on the fret slowly to consonance.  It comes and goes in the same way for a few bars, an aural shock aligned with the gently misguided desire of the song.  It all works very well together, achieving the proper effect on the listener, I’m sure.  Once again though, the song ends before it ever tries to grow into something large.
  5. Midnight: This is a Jon Hopkins track through and through.  His work had been previously sampled by Coldplay on the songs Life in Technicolor and The Escapist, both from Viva la VidaMidnight sounds a lot like that piece, Light Through The Veins, at least initially.  Whereas Light was uplifting and cheerful, this is cold and haunting.  Heavily processed vocals unintelligibly harmonize over the underlying electronics.  It’s very Imogen Heap; calming and beautiful.  Once again, it sounds nothing like any other song in the Coldplay catalog, due this time to the fact that the music is largely driven by an outside influence.  I recommend listening to this song in the dark, preferably under the stars and/or full moon, another ongoing theme.
  6. Another’s Arms: Sans production effects, this is a piano-driven song that would have found a nice home somewhere between A Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y.  A simple minor-key progression pushes forward while Chris once again croons a slightly baritone melody.  Multi-tracked vocals in the chorus give the impression of being underwater where heavy bass and swirling low pads add to the feeling.  It’s almost a softer counterpart to Yes.  (Aside: at least once on every album Chris should utilize his fantastic lower register; it’s used to great effect here.)  Synth effects enter in the background during the choruses and bridge, where another Jonny-style guitar solo chimes over the latter.  The track closes with a wailing vocal, before repeating the opening line.  It’s another sad song, another low-key, quiet piece.
  7. Oceans: A return to the style of Parachutes that’s been a long time coming. It’s not unlike Atlas in its chord progression and the inclusion of wailing guitar, however this one is centered on the acoustic guitar and a melody ripped straight from a Parachutes B-side (I’ll have to figure out which one later…).  The constant sonar bleeps are a hypnotic addition, one I strongly approve of.  It adds a sense of open space and loneliness, one you might find, say, at the ocean.  The soaring vocal melody contrasts nicely with a guitar that sounds like it really wants to play major chords but is compelled not to.  It’s a new song heavily tinged with nostalgia and one of my standouts from the album.  I have a major soft spot for this sound and Oceans fits right into it.  In the ideal (or, non-ideal?) situation, I could see myself shedding a few tears to this beautiful piece of music.  Even now, during probably one of the happiest times of my life, I could feel myself being moved by it.  It’s just really great.
  8. A Sky Full of Stars: After the emptiness of Oceans and its extended outro of reverberating bells, comes this.  It’s an electronic number, produced (and seemingly performed) by Avicii.  It’s got a sampled and heavily processed player-piano pushing chords under a soaring vocal track.  The first chorus breaks in with stadium-shattering beats and synth, which I’m sure will kill live.  The second verse welcomes an acoustic guitar.  I’d like to think it’s played by Chris, however the performances I’ve seen suggest otherwise.  Speaking of, his vocals are really great here.  He’s certainly sounding better every album and his range in Stars is tremendous (at least, compared to how it was in 2000).  The ending is an arena-filling cacophony of synth, vocals and a stomping bass drum, before fading out to echoing guitars a la Coldplay-of-old.  All that said, and no offense to Avicii or fans of electronic dance music, but in my opinion this is somewhat of a misstep on an otherwise terrific record.  It simply doesn’t mesh with the dominant gloomy, vacuous tone of the first half.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s catchy as hell; it’s just not Coldplay, especially in light of the band reaching back into their early sounds on multiple occasions beforehand.  This is a rather generic electronic pop track, basically “Avicii featuring Chris Martin”.  I don’t hear any obvious influence from the other three members of the band.  Now, this may be a specious thing to say after praising the direction of Midnight and re-appropriation of Jon Hopkins, however I think the difference lies in the apparent goal of the track: Midnight is odd, somewhat inaccessible and wholly mood setting, while Stars is 100% mainstream, seemingly pandering to the Top 40 crowd.  You don’t need to do that, Coldplay.  Now, maybe this is supposed to be the track that breaks through the melancholy and is the uplifting piece to finish the album.  That thought makes sense to me, it’s just really abrupt in its execution and placement in the tracklist.  My neck hurts from mood whiplash!  Anyway, it’s not a bad song and I’m sure it’ll grow on me once I listen to the album as a whole a few more times. I have no doubt it will fit in to Ghost Stories much like the wildy-deviant single Viva La Vida did on its album back in 2008.
  9. O: Piano arpeggios begin this marvelous track.  It builds slowly, very slowly, piano churning the whole way through the verses.  It’s a very atmospheric song with a lot of reverb and lightly soaring vocals that adds a lush arrangement of sound effects and harmonies before fading out to nothing for a few seconds.  It’s beautiful and simple, and that’s all that really needs to be said.  Then, after the pause, the choral vocals that began Ghost Stories return.  It’s a reprise not unlike the one heard on Viva La Vida, bringing the album full circle.  And just like that, it’s over… or is it actually starting all over again?  To quote the great Rustin Cohle, time is a flat circle.  In fact, this track’s title gives the secret away in a single letter.  It’s a surprising display of depth from a band not necessarily known for being profound.  I approve.

All in all, it’s not a very long album, nor is it going to blow the roof off of every stadium Coldplay rolls through on their next tour.  However, Ghost Stories is a compact, well-produced, haunting, hook-laden, and overall very consistent album.  It explores a relationship, one that begins with longing and desire, runs into a realization of falseness and denial, inevitably breaks and is moved on from  The intro-reprise seems to indicate that the narrator might just be trapped in a cycle destined to repeat to infinity.  The instrumentation, while often drowning in reverberations and electronic samples, is lush and sculpts a vivid, albeit dark, environment.  It’s a moody album for a clear night, possibly the most cohesive piece of work Coldplay has put out in their history.  Ghost Stories is a true concept record, written as a complete, contemplative story, and I think it has a solid place in the upper echelon of their discography.  Now, I’m off to embed the memories of warm, starry, spring nights onto it, forever.

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