Everybody Hurts

05.20.14

Gwyneth Paltrow Haunts Coldplay’s Self-Conscious Breakup Album ‘Ghost Stories’

‘Ghost Stories’ is restrained and less grandiose, yet very self-conscious, like the band is trying to sound different. Chris Martin’s pain doesn’t make for great breakup songs.

There is no better subject for a pop song than heartbreak. Seriously: The number of stone-cold classics about falling out of love—or, more accurately, being cast out of love, against one’s will—is probably in the quadruple digits at this point. “Living Without You” by Randy Newman. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn. “Come Pick Me Up” by Ryan Adams. “Crying” by Roy Orbison. And that’s just from a quick glance at the R section of my iTunes library. 

But heartbreak songs are a double-edged sword as well. On the one hand, they can resonate with listeners like nothing else; breaking up is at once the most painful and most universal experience we have as humans, so the potential for songs about that experience to move us is pretty vast. On the other hand, everything about breaking up—including songs about breaking up—is a cliché. If your breakup song isn’t very, very good, it’s almost certainly bad. There’s just no margin for error. 

This is the problem with Coldplay’s new album, Ghost Stories.

In case you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the past few months, here’s a quick primer to get you up to speed. In March, Coldplay singer Chris Martin and actress Gwyneth Paltrow announced on Paltrow’s Goop lifestyle website that they would be splitting up after a decade of marriage—or “consciously uncoupling,” as they put it. “We have been working hard for well over a year, some of it together, some of it separated, to see what might have been possible between us,” they wrote. “We have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate.”

Immediately the wags started to speculate about the cause of the divorce. Perhaps Gwyneth was cheating on Chris with Elle Macpherson’s husband, hotel billionaire Jeff Soffer. Or perhaps she was fooling around with entertainment lawyer Kevin Yorn instead. Then again, maybe it was actually Chris who was doing the cheating—with an SNL assistant, or with Alexa Chung, or with someone else. Who knows. 

Either way, Martin has publicly shouldered much of the blame. “You can be with someone very wonderful,” he told a BBC DJ last month, “but because of your own issues you cannot let that be celebrated in the right way.”  Elsewhere, he said Ghost Stories was a concept album about the divorce and how “you let the things that happen to you in the past—your ghosts...affect your present and your future.”

This is precisely what the LP, out May 19 on Atlantic Records, sounds like—and that’s not a good thing. The first issue is the music. According to reports, the band’s first concept for Ghost Stories was, in fact, musical: to abandon the big pop sound that defined their previous album, Mylo Xyloto, and create a “stripped-down, more acoustic collection” instead. “There’s only so far you can go without becoming pompous and a bit overblown, so we’ll tread that line very carefully,” drummer Will Champion told the BBC. “Reset. Recalibrate.” Martin confirmed this shift when he told the same outlet that “ever since our band came out, we have been a very polarizing group because we do a certain thing very well”—and confessed that he can no longer “enjoy the thing that we are good at.”

The result is a record that succeeds in sounding different than Coldplay’s previous releases—more restrained, less grandiose, smaller—but that also seems very self-conscious and effortful, like a band trying to sound different. Most of the stuff that Coldplay was “good at”—sing-along choruses, guilty-pleasure crescendos—is gone, replaced by a form of overcorrected sonic understatement that doesn’t suit the group nearly as well. 

The singer tells us about the "tattoo" he got that "said 'together through life'" and laments that it "used to be you here beside me," "late night watching TV."

Sometimes the approach works OK: Unlike its predecessors, the minimalist single “Magic” never ascends into the anthemic stratosphere, but the steady, disciplined accretion of new instrumental layers and new melodic hooks gives it a subtle momentum that the band’s more obvious songs lack. Still, for every track like “Magic,” Ghost Stories tosses out two like “Another’s Arms”: an aimless dirge that crumbles under the weight of its own reserve rather than building to some sort of catharsis. Half of the short, nine-song album—the near-catatonic folk of “Oceans”; the meandering piano ballad “O”; the Bon Iver homage “Midnight”—suffers from a similar sort of inertia, and it all gets a bit lugubrious after awhile. I understand what Coldplay was going for here, and I’m sure some critics will praise them for not hitting us over the head with their music for once. But while understatement may be cooler than pomposity—especially in indie rock circles—it doesn’t necessarily make for better songs. Actually, in Coldplay’s case, quite the opposite. Ghost Stories is the sound of a band trying too hard to sound like it’s not trying too hard anymore.  

Which brings us, finally, to Martin’s words. To match the new, inhibited mood of Coldplay’s music—and to reflect the romantic upheaval in his own life—the singer cranked out what he’s calling his most “personal” and “vulnerable” set of lyrics yet. He’s probably right about that: Ghost Stories does, after all, begin with “I think of you, I haven’t slept” and end with “Maybe one day I'll fly next to you, so fly on,” and Gwyneth’s specter plainly haunts everything in between. 

Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between a “personal, vulnerable” breakup song and a great breakup song. The former isn’t necessarily the latter, and the latter has to be more than just the former; a great breakup song has to pierce the all-too-familiar surface of heartbreak and touch upon the deeper forces at work. As a writer, you can do this by being specific (like, say, Bob Dylan in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”), or by staying general (like Martin’s own line “Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be this hard” from “The Scientist.”) 

But you can’t do what Martin does on much of Ghost Stories, which is assume your pain is resonant just because it’s yours. Sure, the singer tells us about the “tattoo” he got that “said ‘together through life’” and laments that it “used to be you here beside me,” “late night watching TV.” But these phrases are too pat to surprise us—to feel suddenly right, as if they’ve somehow captured a feeling we never quite realized we had. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are some beautiful moments on Ghost Stories. The vertiginous chorus of “True Love” is genuinely heartbreaking—“Tell me you love me / If you don’t, then lie to me”—and the verse’s drooping chord changes cleverly echo the sense of powerlessness that accompanies a loss. Best of all is the opener, “Always in My Head,” which is built around a gentle but almost monomaniacal Jonny Buckland guitar riff that sounds just like the feeling evoked in the title and peaks with the most moving line on the LP: “My body moves / Goes where I will / But though I try / My heart stays still.” That’s the kind of lyric the rest of Ghost Stories could use more of. 

I’m no Coldplay hater, either. In fact, I recently wrote a passionate defense of their music for this very site. The reason so many people despise Coldplay, I argued, was that they mistake Martin & Co. for something they’re not. Sure, the boys may look and feel like an alternative rock band—but what they really are, at heart, is a pop group. The difference is that alternative rock bands are primarily concerned with following their own muse; you can follow along if you like. Coldplay, on the other hand, always seemed to care about nothing but pleasing its audience. They wrote big songs with big falsetto choruses designed for big sing-alongs in big stadiums. They said thank you constantly. They apologized. They might have been the most ingratiating band in the world.

But on Ghost Stories, Coldplay has turned inward. They’re a little more alternative now, and a little less pop. In short, they’re mistaking themselves for something they’re not. Wanting our approval is what made Coldplay Coldplay. Without that, there’s not all the much left to approve of.