Our reasons for loving or loathing Coldplay often hover around the same overt culprits: their dearth of subtlety, their embrace of extremes. For better or turn-that-sap-down, the Brit boys let it all hang out, hopeful (Yellow, Viva La Vida) and hopeless (The Scientist, Princess of China) and always so richly heart-sleeved it can make your molars hurt (Don't Let It Break Your Heart, Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall).
That's why, in the wake of frontman Chris Martin's celebrity split — or "conscious uncoupling," ugh — with wife Gwyneth Paltrow, we figured Coldplay would soon reach epic levels of piano-pounding pathos. But lo and behold, no. New LP Ghost Stories, released on Tuesday, is a total twist, packing punch not with wails but whispers. Only eight tracks long (nine with a hidden bonus), it is Coldplay's most understated record, grandiose gestures set aside for ponderance and gauzy malaise.
Although the music is sedate and contemplative, Gwynnie's ex pulls no punches lyrically, writing with a jilted pen. "I think of you, I haven't slept / I think I do, but I don't forget," he sings in a midrange coo on swirling opener Always In My Head. On the dazed lope of midtempo gem Magic, he reiterates: "I call it magic when I'm with you / And I just got broken, broken into two."
Listeners in search of gossipy clues won't need to dig deep. Chris certainly seems to be the dumpee here. And yet, let it be known that Coldplay is too smart to make a bitter "here, my dear" album that feels like a personal parting shot. Instead, the music strives for universal and the universe, each cut intended for we, the collective lovelorn.
Coldplay also longs to entertain you; if you've ever seen the band's bombastic live show, you've no doubt left loving them more, or at least loathing them less. You could never accuse Coldplay of being hip or indie or exclusive. On Ghost Stories, while the despairing themes stay consistent, fluttery moments of uplift lighten the dark mood.
On Ink ("Got a tattoo and the pain's alright / Just want a way of keeping you inside"), the hook lifts instead of droops, as Martin takes solace in true love, cast adrift or not. Speaking of which: On the following track, True Love ("I've lost you now, you let me go / But one last time, tell me you love me / If you don't, then lie"), the synths are reassuring, plus ace guitarist Jonny Buckland finally (finally!) gets to uncork that signature ringing tone, his style of play resolutely defiant.
About that: Buckland is an underrated treasure (see Coldplay classics In My Place, Fix You, God Put a Smile Upon Your Face), but the truth is that this feels very much like a Martin solo LP — and a good one, too. The spare production sometimes leans toward Bon Iver or Radiohead territory; Thom Yorke would appreciate the deliberately muddled vocal on Midnight. At other times, it reminds me of Tangerine Dream's prickly Risky Business score. Put it all together, and it sounds like it was recorded in the vicinity of 2 a.m., Martin floating numb on the lunar landscape of Planet Breakup. It's sad, and it's very different, but it's also absolutely gorgeous, from start to finish. Go figure: Ghost Stories might be the first Coldplay album on which we can all agree.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.