Coldplay’s latest album, Ghost Stories, has been hitting the headlines.
There are three reasons. 1. It has become the fastest-selling UK album of the year. 2. The band signed an exclusive deal with iTunes meaning that the album was not available on free music streaming websites like Spotify. 3. In an impressive publicity stunt, the band created an international scavenger hunt by hiding handwritten lyrics from the album in libraries across the world.
The album itself has almost been lost in the chatter, but among fans who have been waiting for it for three years the response to the music is mixed. Those who know Coldplay for their buoyant, stadium-filling anthems have found it surprising. Aside from the album’s first single, ‘Magic’, and the penultimate track, ‘A Sky Full of Stars’, the songs are mellow and downbeat. For other fans, this is its strength: it’s a return to the soothing ‘bath rock’ music that appeared on the band’s first album, Parachutes, released in 2000. But Ghost Stories is not just ambient; it has more than a tinge of sadness, and with good reason.
It seems to be impossible to talk about Ghost Stories without mentioning the fact that it was it was released less than two months after the band’s frontman Chris Martin announced his ‘conscious uncoupling’ from his wife of ten years, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The couple, who have two children, announced their separation on Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop. The article claimed amiably, ‘we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate’. It immediately drew criticism from people who objected to their euphemistic language. What did ‘unconscious uncoupling’ even mean?
Paltrow’s spiritual advisers, Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami, explain: ‘It seems ironic to say that a marriage coming apart is the cause of something else coming together, but it’s true. Conscious uncoupling brings wholeness to the spirits of both people who choose to recognise each other as their teacher. If they do, the gift they receive from their time together will neutralise their negative internal object that was the real cause of their pain in the relationship’.
Ghost Stories, which has repeatedly been dubbed a ‘breakup album’, is full of descriptions of this pain. Martin describes the art of songwriting as like keeping a diary, and the album is clearly very personal.
But Ghost Stories does not languish in depression. The album’s dramatic narrative moves on; by track eight there is a musical release and a lyrical turn to acceptance and joy. Speaking to the BBC, Martin explains: ‘What Ghost Stories means to me is 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’. The album’s title also refers to this sense that you cannot let the ghosts of your past continue to haunt you. You have to move on and embrace the future.
More importantly, Martin’s great revelation in this album is that in order to live a satisfying life you have to let go of your fears and make yourself entirely vulnerable. You have to embrace everything life throws at you, whether happy or sad. You have to be completely honest. You have to be grateful for every moment, whatever it brings. Only in doing so can you find the capacity to love unconditionally and to experience deep-seated, euphoric joy. ‘I’m very proud of that message’, says Martin, who hopes that by listening to this album, fans will experience this soul-cleansing catharsis.
Listening to Martin talk about the album it’s clear that his ‘new approach to life’ does have a spiritual component. Perhaps it’s not surprising given his background. Paltrow raised their children as Jews in honour of her father, who was a rabbi. Martin himself was raised in a Catholic family, but subsequently turned to a combination of other faiths. He’s experimented with a range of religions, finally settling on the self-invented term ‘all-theist’ to describe his belief in all kinds of gods.
For Ghost Stories he consulted a teacher of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, who told him to let his negative experiences ‘alchemise’. The result was that the music on the album simply flowed through him, he claims. He’s conscious of sounding too New Age, but he says: ‘I’ve been given that gift from the universe, or from God, or whatever you want to believe in, that ideas for songs get sent through wherever they get sent from and then I take them to the rest of the band.
In the face of his heartbreak, Martin’s defiant response is to keep singing. He uses the album to declare that his spirit is not crushed: ‘If you were to ask me / After all that we’ve been through / ‘Still believe in magic?’ / Well yes I do / Of course I do!’ This sense of magic is a relief and a release, but only inasmuch as it points to a deeper, more freeing truth. A single true God does exist and he is a source of comfort, inspiration, joy, hope, healing and real, unconditional love. Martin may not have found him yet, but for us, whatever the trials of life, that really is something to keep believing in.
Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com