Since we met Chris Martin 14 years ago, he's been a trusted emotional shepherd, nudging us to hear the clanging bells, marvel at the stars, glow in the dark, obey our hearts. But what happens when he doesn't have someone to write all those lush ballads for?
Coldplay's sixth album is called Ghost Stories, and there's a blond phantom obviously haunting its nine tracks. The record comes just two months after Martin and his wife of a decade, Gwyneth Paltrow, announced their "conscious uncoupling" – outwardly a breakup with the best intentions, but a split all the same. For the first time in ages, Martin isn't trying to "Fix You." Now he needs to repair himself.
The result is a Coldplay LP unlike anything the band has done before. Instead of broad, arms-outstretched choruses and irresistible, foot-stomping anthems, there are whimpers and wails that recall the anguished warbling of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak or Bon Iver's Bon Iver. "You're always in my head," Martin croons on the hushed opener, prodded on by guitarist Jonny Buckland's chiming riff; he keeps that vow for 43 raw minutes. On the mournful "Oceans," Martin's falsetto flings itself against an acoustic guitar and holds on for dear life. By the time he reaches the closer, "O," Martin is a ghost, too, a plume of smoke chasing a flock of birds into the sky.
Co-producer Paul Epworth, who famously helped Adele roll to a Grammys sweep in 2012, does a laudable job helping Coldplay peel back the layers of 2011's Brian Eno-led Mylo Xyloto, landing on a more minimalist palette. On several songs, drummer Will Champion experiments with the gentle thump of synth percussion. Many multitracked Martins mournfully harmonize on "Midnight," the album's sprawling linchpin, as sputtering synths mimic the disorientation he sings about. Live, the band has been performing the tune with a pair of dueling laser harps, as bassist Guy Berryman and Martin guide the track's EDM-y spaz-out from opposite ends of the stage.
Ghost Stories is set somewhere between depression and acceptance: While Martin sprints all the way out to the precipice, Coldplay – still the same four guys who brought you "Yellow" in 2000 and share equal credit on every track – don't slip over the edge. The throbby single "Magic" and brighter "Ink" plumb the prospects of eternal love after the flame of romance has been extinguished. The album's most ecstatic track, the Avicii-assisted "A Sky Full of Stars" – a full-on detour into the Swedish DJ's patented strum-tronica – gives Martin a chance to (awkwardly) dance himself clean.
The truth of "True Love" is too painful to bear, so the singer instructs his partner, "Just tell me you love me/If you don't, then lie/Oh, lie to me." At a recent New York gig, the 37-year-old singer proclaimed the especially tortured song the band's favorite track it has ever written. Its detuned, squalling guitar solo is the album's most jarring but ultimately most satisfying sonic moment. It's probably not the song Martin wanted to write, but it's the one he needs right now.