Coldplay is not an easy band to hate, but they’re a particularly difficult band to love. In their 15 years together, they’ve harbored greatness in the making (Parachutes), proven themselves an arena-pop act with the earnestness to match U2 (A Rush of Blood to the Head), and even graduated to their working-with-Brian-Eno stage (Viva La Vida). And yet, they’ve also undergone a few awkward stages involving poorly appropriated Kraftwerk riffs (X&Y) and Top 40 largesse (Mylo Xyloto). They’re a band that’s willing to change and experiment, but it’s more or less a foregone conclusion that they’ll never release a Kid A or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Ghost Stories certainly isn’t that kind of game changer, and if any of their albums ever was, it was A Rush of Blood, way back in 2002. But Ghost Stories presents something that’s even more admirable — it’s Coldplay, more or less, being content with being Coldplay. There are no guest appearances by Rihanna, no soaring orchestral flourishes, but there is Brian Eno. And sure enough, it’s a great sounding record — full of atmospheric synthesizers and electronic flourishes. Drummer Will Champion said in an interview prior to the album’s release that “There’s only so far you can go without becoming pompous and a bit overblown,” and Ghost Stories easily avoids that fate.
As Coldplay albums go, Ghost Stories ranks among their gentlest and most atmospheric, which may well be enough to give naysayers the fodder they need to continue naysaying. But here’s the thing: Gentle and atmospheric is basically Coldplay’s wheelhouse, and even if it’s comfortable, they can pull off just such a sound and make it feel natural — even interesting, sometimes. There’s a sense on Ghost Stories that the band has spent some time studying up on dubstep crooners like James Blake and Jamie Woon, which translates into some occasionally gorgeous ballads like “Midnight” or “Another’s Arms.”
Yet, while there are moments in which Coldplay take some interesting steps forward on Ghost Stories, there are a few moments when the band rests a little too heavily on easy listening or pop music clichés. “Ink” sounds like remixed Bruce Hornsby and the Range, while “A Sky Full of Stars” gets caught up in the Calvin Harris patented race-to-the-drop EDM-by-numbers machine. Coldplay have enough good songs in their catalog that they would seem perfectly capable of balancing the right amount of ambition with the warm, fuzzy charm that made them so revered in the first place. On Ghost Stories, however, they just haven’t gotten that balance quite right.