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Coldplay have gone about planning the release of their sixth studio album, Ghost Stories, with all the precision of a military campaign, perhaps in deference to the fact it’s their first release since moving over to Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records as part of Universal’s divestiture of their Parlophone label. The only thing Chris Martin and company didn’t count on – or perhaps they did, given the contents of the record – is his much-publicized break-up with Gwyneth Paltrow, and perhaps that, more than anything, is the reason he has chosen not to give any real one-on-one interviews on the subject, preferring to let the songs do the talking for him.
That said, there’s always been a sense of the lovelorn romantic about Martin and the band’s music, even in happier times, though there is a sense of attenuation about the album and the handful of concerts in their wake. I’ve now seen Coldplay perform these songs three separate times – once during their show at Sony Pictures soundstages in March, which introduced the material and served as the basis for last Sunday’s hour-long NBC special, another time during their iHeartRadio Album Release Party at Clear Channel’s Burbank theater Friday night and then again at Monday night’s Royce Hall concert, one of only six “intimate” theater dates spread out across five countries through the end of the year. Interspersed into their set alongside sing-along crowd favorites like “Viva la Vida,” “Paradise” and “Clocks,” they provide a bit of minor key relief – allowing some welcome time for introspection. Taken alone on the new album, brooding songs like the distorted vocals of “Midnight,” the acoustic raga of “Ink” or the eerie, free-floating underwater vibe and muted horn sounds of “Another’s Arms” seem to drag, even if the Avicii collaboration, “A Sky Full of Stars,” tries to make up for the doom und gloom with the band’s patented arms-wide-open anthem-like twirl.
Proclaiming, “We will never play another show like this in our lives,” Martin promises a set that will incorporate rarities, favorites and new songs, all of which he squeezes into a maximum efficiency, 80-minute, one-encore show that mirrors the Ghost Stories album’s similarly minimal nine-song, 43-minute running time (minus the three “bonus” tracks included on the Target exclusive deluxe edition). Starting off with the relatively obscure “Atlas,” their song from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire soundtrack, it’s obvious this isn’t the arena-rock Coldplay for the masses, but one for true fans, a scaling-down that goes well with the new album’s more intimate scope. Still, “Charlie Brown,” one of the singles from Mylo Xylo, offers a nice contrast leading into “The Scientist,” and its apt lyric, “Nobody said it would be easy… Let’s go back to the start,” signs that all hasn’t been well for awhile with Martin’s romantic dreams. “Don’t Panic,” the first track on the band’s debut album, 2000’s Parachutes, perhaps the closest in feel to their latest in its introspective confessional, is next, introduced by Martin as a song from “before most of you were born.”
According to Martin, the band hadn’t played the psychabilly-tinged “A Whisper,” from 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, “anywhere in the world for 12 years,” while X&Y’s “’Til Kingdom Come” finds drummer Will Champion on piano and Guy Berryman playing harp, a song that makes clear the unbroken line connecting Coldplay to latter-day roots artists like Mumford & Sons, marked by Martin’s classical-inspired keyboards and not-so-secret weapon Jonny Buckland’s complementary, always melodic guitar riffs.
“Viva la Vida” and “Paradise” up the ante before delving into the new material, showcasing eight of the album’s nine cuts, starting with “Always in My Head,” one of the less notable tracks, though the R&B groove of “Magic,” highlighted by Martin’s falsetto, has grown on me. “True Love” is another song that has wormed its way into my head (with its aching lyric, “Tell me you love me/If you don’t then lie/Lie to me”), while the pulsing electronica beat and muted, Bon Iver-esque vocals of the Eno-inspired ambient “Midnight” remain an impressive, if failed, attempt at reinvention, with Martin playing the lasers like a theremin harp, the overall effect closer to alternative bands like alt-j.
The shimmering “Oceans” summarizes the sonic immersion of Ghost Stories, and closes the concert, leading into the three-song encore which begins with the confetti-laden “A Sky Full of Stars” into a surprise, very bluesy, Stonesy take on “Yellow,” added onto the playlist for “Fix You” and dedicated to Kevin Cordasco, the 16-year-old who lost his life to a rare form of cancer in March, 2013. Martin takes to the piano for “O,” the album closer and perhaps the most vulnerable song on the album, with its invocation of a flock of birds and its vow to “fly on.” Indeed, Coldplay manage to turn heartbreak into transcendence, which is what all great artists do. Give Chris Martin a break as he works through his issues the only way he knows how – in the music.
‘Til Kingdom Come
Viva la Vida
Always in my Heart
A Sky Full of Stars
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