Coldplay are nothing if not REALLY good at being any band other than themselves. It’s as if at any moment Chris Martin’s diary will leak and it will be chock-full of pages reading “last night I dreamt I was in Radiohead and everyone said I was cool and a genius and Thom Yorke and I got ice cream!” It’s no huge secret that Coldplay doesn’t really strive to do anything but churn out catchy stadium-sized rock for people residing a single Hip level above “homeschooled teen raised on worship music.” This in itself is no great crime, they’ve never tried to pretend to be indie underdogs or tortured souls looking for a platform to get their voice out. Coldplay are, dare I say, one of the most honest bands around by virtue of fully indulging in their brand of cheesy soft rock and allowing themselves to be a bit pretentious at times with their image. As a band, they’re like a guy sitting in their bedroom throwing together 8tracks mixes with obtuse titles as an excuse to make album art just for the fun of it. Coldplay are entirely harmless and safe, expanding their sound by treading paths cleared by bolder (if only slightly) artists rather than trying something truly different. Going through the discography of Coldplay gives insight into the chronology of Chris Martin discovering influential bands or hot trends in the lower charts. It feels cheap to harp on the guys for not being something they’ve never claimed to be, though. Nobody gets mad at Vampire Weekend for not experimenting with drone-doom enough.
All of this should have written the band off ages ago, yet here we are in 2014 and a new Coldplay album is set for release. The secret might be that for all the bluster about their banality and lack of risk-taking with their sound, they do what they do really well. The production is always crisp and detailed. The lyrics and music are written to be sweet as cotton candy and just as light. There’s not a lot of thinking involved in enjoying Coldplay. You don’t need to be mindful of how all energy is vibrations and what you’re hearing is the sound of the universe. All you need is a couple minutes and no free hand to change the radio station. All you need is resignation that you, unable to change the radio station for the next few minutes, will just have to sit back and let Chris Martin sing his gentle “you”s into your ear. In a way, this is less accessible than Young God-era Swans. Only if you think about it hard.
The big surprise then, when starting a new Coldplay album is what artists Martin has been listening to lately and feeling inspired by lately. For a solid 32 seconds at the outset, you might be relieved to say to yourself “Oh my god, someone put him on to Oneohtrix Point Never!” as the ambient electronics stutter and drone and echo their way towards the “real” start of “Always In My Head”, a relatively high note on the record. Martin is the same inoffensive Martin we’ve gotten used to over the past decade and a half, so you can ignore whatever he’s saying and focus on how his voice almost suits the lush backdrop of echoing programmed beats and light curtains of synths. The overall result is a pleasant, if somewhat predicable slice of electronics-inflected rock music. If there was a perfect way to open a Coldplay album, this is it. A teaser of greater things reduced to a safer and less exciting idea that doesn’t offend or excite in any particular way. Lead single “Magic” comes next, continuing this trend with sparse drum machines over a cool guitar riff. It’s once again an interesting idea marred by a reluctance to take it any farther than the shallow end.
The rest of the album floats by in a pleasant, but no more than just pleasant, stream of programmed breakbeats and continued forays into the dance experiments of Mylo Xyloto. None of this is particularly bad, but nothing really sticks out. “True Love” shows faint glimmers of promise with a Timbaland beat (yes, really) that could be thunderous and towering but is buried below synthesized strings and Martin’s voice. The Jon Hopkins-assisted “Midnight” is a slow-burning dance track that quits right before things could get dangerous (or interesting!) “Another’s Arms” could have been a serious foray into darker and murkier (at least for Coldplay) territory, but is marred once again by the layers of strings and Martin’s voice. “A Sky Full Of Stars” shows Coldplay trying to bite on the action of Avicii’s truly putrid “Wake Me Up”… or it would, had Avicii not been directly involved in the songs production. Either way it’s another cut that just should not have been.
It’s not all bad, though. It really is not all bad; “Oceans” is an unexpected highlight late on the album. Stripped down to a warm acoustic guitar and a cold electronic ping with only slight intrusions by the mess of synthesized strings that plague the album, it provides a look at what could have been an interesting minimalist direction for the album had someone in the studio not tacked on egregious trance hooks. The song closes out with a gentle ambient section before the previously-mentioned disaster of “A Sky Full Of Stars”. The other bright spot is the closer “O”. Despite the lineage obviously tracing back to Sigur Ros, the track is enjoyable if you just forget you ever listened to Takk… . Much like “Oceans”, “O” closes with a gentle ambient section of swirling synths and reverb-tinged vocals. Chris Martin is seemingly nowhere to be found during this closeout of the album and the section is better for it.
Ghost Stories is not horrible. Ghost Stories doesn’t fail at anything Coldplay has tried to do in the past and evidently is still trying to do. Its best moments show the band might be trying to draw inspiration from less-obvious sources than before or maybe just striking it lucky by imitating more popular imitators of less popular but more inventive artists. It’s irrelevant either way, because they’ve produced another 42 minutes of music that are catchy and inoffensive enough to once again reach a broad audience without really challenging them to acquire a taste for anything they don’t like already. Taken as a whole it’s easy to see where the album has been overproduced or not assembled correctly but this likely won’t stand in their way of commercial and critical success in the mainstream. The real question is how badly you want to change the office radio this will likely get pumped out of incessantly. The biggest misstep of Ghost Stories isn’t being tuneless or tasteless, or a pale imitation, the real fault lies in how it fails to make you feel either way about it beyond being just another Coldplay album.