Album Review

Celebrity breakups are hardly a rarity. Nor are songs about romance gone awry. And it's not uncommon for high-profile musicians to reference equally high-profile relationships that haven't worked out. (I'm talking to you, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry).

That said, I'm not sure I've ever heard anything quite like Coldplay's mournful-meets-hopeful, always reflective release Ghost Stories. In the abstract, it's a concept album written from the perspective of a man coming to terms with love's labor's lost. More concretely—and back in the real world—it will serve for many as a transparent glimpse into lead singer Chris Martin's attempt to make sense of the disintegration of his 10-year marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

Sonically, Ghost Stories is a wispy, ephemeral collection of nine songs loaded with ambient, ethereal sounds. Emotionally, Martin's lyrics take us on a raw journey that expresses both his aching sense of loss and a glimmer of hope that perhaps he'll make it through this season of heartbreak in due time.

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What sets these tracks apart from dime-a-dozen breakup songs is their complete absence of rancor, rage or recrimination. Instead, what Martin and Co. have recorded is the journey of a man tenderly pondering the beauty of the love that was. It's sad stuff, to be sure. But there's a captivating depth of reflection here about the failure of a marriage.

"Always in My Head" stands at the trailhead, with Chris reflecting on how his love still haunts him. But despite his pain, he confesses he still loves her, singing, "This, I guess/Is to tell you you're chosen/Out from the rest." "Magic" then documents what happens when real love is lost ("Call it magic/Or call it true/When I'm with you/And I just got broken in two/ … I disappear from view/And I can't get over you/ … You're such a precious jewel"). "Ink" ponders that loss further ("Ya wonder when you wake up, will it be alright?/Feels like there's something lost inside/All I know, all I know/Is that I'm lost whenever ya go/All I know is that I love you so/So much that it hurts"). That agony intensifies when Martin (in "Another's Arms") thinks the unthinkable thought of his love being with someone else ("The pain just rips right through me/Another's arms, another's arms/And that's just torture to me") and as he fondly reminisces about their past intimacy ("Late night watching TV/Wish that you were here beside me/Wish that your arms were around me").

None of that feels like wallowing, especially because as the album continues we begin to feel the singer's determination to move forward into a hopeful future. On "Oceans," that future seems to include the possibility of reconciliation ("I'm ready for it all, Love/Ready for the pain/Meet under the sun and meet me again/In the rain") and personal change ("I'm trying to change/And I'm ready for it all, love/I'm ready for the change/Meet me in the blue sky/Meet me again"). "True Love" recalls better days ("Remember, once upon a time, when I was yours and you were blind/The fire would sparkle in your eyes/And mine"). " Midnight" looks forward to refuge and respite from the darkness that swirls all around.

"A Sky Full of Stars" speaks of both adoration and commitment ("I'm gonna give you my heart/ … I want to die in your arms/'Cause you get lighter the more it gets dark"). Album closer "O" could be heard pessimistically as Martin compares love to a flighty flock of birds ("A flock of birds hovering above/Just a flock of birds/That's how you think of love/ … 'Cause they fly always/Sometimes they arrive/Sometimes they're gone"). But the song—and the album—concludes hopefully ("So fly on, ride through/Maybe one day I'll fly next to you/Fly on, ride through/Maybe one day I can fly with you").

Objectionable Content

"True Love" finds Martin plaintively demanding a confession of love, never minding whether his former lady feels it: "So tell me you love me/And if you don't, then lie, oh, lie to me." "Another's Arms" includes a mildly suggestive recollection of sexual proximity ("Your body on my body").

Summary Advisory

Ghost Stories certainly vents a man's agony when his love leaves. But that agony isn't the end of the story here. Instead, Chris Martin poignantly chooses to focus on the very best aspects of a relationship now gone even as he begins to look toward the future. He hints that perhaps reconciliation is possible, but he doesn't seem to be placing unrealistic hope in it.

Now, one could wish, perhaps, that Chris would just get angry at some point. After all, if he is singing about his marriage, he seems to reference his wife having an affair (and plenty of stories to that effect have swirled in the media). That's a harsh reality that could prompt us to think maybe our man Martin is romanticizing things too much—looking both backward and forward with rose-colored glasses firmly in place.

Listening to him talk about the album, however, it seems like he's actually working hard to make sense of why his marriage came apart and what he might learn from it. In an interview with the BBC, he said, "The idea of Ghost Stories, for me, was 'How do you let the things that happen to you in the past—your ghosts—how do you let them affect your present and your future?' Because there was a time when I was feeling like they were going to drag me down and ruin my life, and the lives of those around me."

He added, "I think in life everyone needs to be broken in some way. … I think everyone in their life goes through challenges, whether it's love or money, kids or illness. You have to really not run away from that stuff. … Up to a certain point in my life I wasn't completely vulnerable and it caused some problems. If you don't let love in then you can't really give it back. So what Ghost Stories means to me is like, You've got to open yourself up to love and if you really do, of course it will be painful at times, but then it will be great at some point."

That's exactly the mindset we hear echoing through Ghost Stories, which is heartfelt and heartrending in equal measure. And to his credit, Chris never slides into morose melancholy or soul-deadening despair. Instead, he seems determined to keep living and keep loving, even if at times those things are soul-wrenchingly hard to do.

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Debuted at No. 1 with strong first-week sales of 383,000 units.

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May 19, 2014

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Adam R. Holz

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