But this isn't quite early Coldplay rebooted. It shares a simple sparseness with 'Parachutes', but the approach is radically different. In harness with producers as diverse as Paul Epworth, Timbaland and Avicii, Coldplay have never sounded more electronic. Where 'Ghost Stories' really differs from 'Mylo Xyloto' is in a sharp dialling down of intensity, sonically if not lyrically, with only the Avicii-led 'A Sky Full Of Stars' cutting loose, and even then as a hesitant retread of 'Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall'. It's a reluctance that feels quite normal; introspection doesn't invite the poppers. The real heart of 'Ghost Stories' is in the warped Bon Iver-isms of 'Midnight' with its devastated plea to "leave a light on", in the beaten but unbowed bareness of 'Magic' ("If you were to ask me/After all that we've been through/Still believe in magic?/Yes, I do/Of course I do"), in the gorgeously off-key synth loops of 'Oceans' and in the choppy dubstep textures of 'True Love' where Martin croaks, "One last time/Tell me you love me," and we all start to feel his own hollowness. For an album that apparently began, for the very first time, with other members providing the kernels of tracks, this doesn't half feel like a Chris Martin solo record.
And in that sense it was never going to provide fireworks. 'Ghost Stories' is a feeling more than a collection of songs, and takes a willing reception for granted. That feeling's not rancorous, it's bloodless and resigned, but touching as well. In its warm, delicate drift, this is a quiet success and, as the choral voices and synth glitches of 'Always In My Mind' bookend the album, there's a suggestion it's been parcelled up and everyone can move on. It's all part of the process.
Guitars and drums have given way to synths and electronic keyboards with few exceptions. Variety has never been a strength of theirs, and the stylistic change here is welcome. However, one can’t escape the feeling that the majority of it feels like background noise to existing music. The album’s overreliance on electronics and synths end up being one of its major flaws as when used here end up sounding like futuristic background music. It’s has a nice sound, but not much else.
While musical progression is one way to describe Ghost Stories, the songs end up sounding formulaic and predictable. At a certain point the realization sets in that the album ultimately doesn't go anywhere especially interesting or different, lyrically or musically. “Always In My Head” is a suitable opener with a smooth bassline over chiming electronics with minimal lyrics. Lead single “Midnight” is an optimistic track featuring a low key dance beat and one of Chris Martin’s best vocal performances on the album. Acoustic guitar strumming comes in at the bridge, injecting some much needed substance into the song. The album might as well end there, as nothing compositionally different happens for the rest of the forty five minute running time.
“Ink” follows “Magic” with almost the exact same structure and sound. “Midnight” is the closest the band comes to overcoming their flaws and sounds like nothing they have ever done before. Atmospherics and Martin’s electronic singing dominate the first half until a mysterious sounding bridge subtly creeps in and builds to a chiming crescendo of keyboard licks and synths before descending into a low key vocal outro over a faded keyboard line. The synth elements of the early Coldplay-esque tracks “True Love” and “Anothers Arms” end up making them sound like electronica remixes of their older songs. The first half of “Oceans” is only singing and an acoustic guitar strumming interesting sounding chords before descending into a dull and unnecessary electronic outro. It ends up serving as an intro for the fist-pumping dance-pop track “A Sky Full of Stars.” Album closer “O” is a surprisingly genuine sounding piano-driven ballad where Martin sings about one day “Flying next to you." This whole album ultimately feels like a love letter to his ex, as Martin himself essentially stated as the concept. Despite being somewhat obvious, the lyrics clearly convey his thoughts and lessons from the experience.
Atmosphere and consistency have always been the band’s best qualities and is best exemplified on "Midnight." But even the few strengths this album possesses fail at times. Despite being Coldplay’s most consistent release, almost half of the songs have extended electronica outros that feel completely out of place and unnecessary. Given how short the album is, these tacked on sections ultimately feel like unnecessary filler.
Ghost Stories is ultimately harmless and competent. The simple concept is conveyed in the lyrics and the music is listenable. The low key synth and clinical sound the songs possess ultimately make for a forgettable but satisfying enough listen. In an album full of clichés and bland electronica, the stripped down simplicity of a song like "O" ends up being the most impactful part of the album, and encompasses everything it should have been.