Better than: Keane, definitely.
As half a dozen nearby Upper West Side bars thrummed with a low-key, polite enjoyment of Cinco de Mayo, a collection of eager and already-ecstatic concertgoers gathered amongst the Beacon Theatre’s faux-gilded embellishments and paintings. They were waiting for Coldplay, and the conceit of the night was a unique one. Having mastered the formula for a certain kind of arena pop that had just enough relationship to rock music to be taken seriously when people still only liked to take rock music seriously, but was ultimately inoffensive and catchy enough to catapult sensitive balladry to the top of the charts, it’s been a long time since Coldplay has regularly played rooms the size of the Beacon. There was a promise in the air: the idea that Coldplay might pare it down in accordance with the contemplative nature of their forthcoming new album Ghost Stories, and that we might get an uncharacteristically intimate-sized look into the band with, surely, the new stuff premiering alongside long-forgotten deep cuts.
If that’s what you went to the Beacon looking for, it would have to be considered at least half a missed opportunity. Much of the night was, indeed, structured to showcase the band’s new material and begin the process of introducing fans to it. (Closer “True Love” had never been played for anyone, and Chris Martin beseeched the crowd to refrain from recording it.) In between, they flew through the same sort of old songs they always play: “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” and “Clocks” and “Viva La Vida” were dutifully present, while it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will be some time until we escape “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall,” considering the prime real estate it occupied as the closer of the main set. Predominantly, the best way to describe these performances would be “unflinching competence.” They’re the songs Coldplay’s played at nearly every show since they’ve been released (and are mostly singles), and the polish steadfastly remains, choking out the rawer emotional moments you might expect Martin to allow in this setting, in the wake of his split with Gwyneth Paltrow.
That’s a big part of the hook for Ghost Stories‘ more contemplative demeanor following the Candy Crush Saga world of 2011’s Mylo Xyloto. With the band having dropped hints that they wanted to angle for a more restrained, acoustic-based album as early as the press cycle following 2008’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, the fact that Martin’s relationship collapsed during the making of Ghost Stories seemed a fitting time to explore a more stripped down, introspective sound.
The result, perhaps predictably, is a handful of even-tempered piano ballads that–though the lyrics are clearly more personal to Martin than the older songs at the moment, even if the words themselves are as universal as they’ve always been–can often fail to leave a mark. A large part of this is that the band seems to still be figuring out how to reconcile the two halves of their show. The stage setup for Ghost Stories at first appears almost quaint. There’s a bunch of paper stars hanging above the stage, and a few small trees off to the corners, almost reminiscent of a high school play production. Of course, as soon as the band took the stage a giant screen lit up behind them. Even then, the Ghost Stories songs would be accompanied by storybook or impressionistic imagery that seemed to line up with their sensibilities and the rest of the stage props.
Every time they barreled into one of the big hits in between this stuff, it was as much a welcome break from unfamiliar, mostly sleepily performed material as it was a rupture in the mood the band was trying to cultivate. Suddenly you’re in the Beacon and “Clocks” is pounding along and there are lasers and a bit of smoke and a feed of the band performing up on the screen as if we’re in an arena and people in the cheap seats need the visual aid. One would imagine that as mismatched as it felt last night, it’ll just get reversed when they size up to their normal arena settings. There, the Ghost Stories songs may feel too small-scale alongside the production values of a Coldplay concert let loose. While it’s actually overwhelming in an interesting way to see a band cram arena-sized special effects into a theatre space, it ultimately seemed to expose a core disruption in Coldplay’s personality. You got the sense that there’s a side of the band–or, at the very least, of Martin–where they’re in the mindset to do a stripped down, smaller venue tour full of new material and Parachutes deep cuts. But they’re Coldplay, and you can’t slow pop machines like that down. They always have to be in a certain, high-grossing gear.
If there was a moment where it really came together and split the difference, it would be “Midnight.” The song had its skeptics, the ones who immediately figured Coldplay was feigning “an alternative left turn” kind of an album, and I suppose you’d say they were right; after all, the other song we’ve yet to hear from Ghost Stories that’s heavily indebted to electronic music is the EDM nonsense of “A Sky Full of Stars.” Regardless of its status as a sonic outlier, “Midnight” is treated as a centerpiece in the show, the Ghost Stories song with the most theatrics. Bassist Guy Berryman and Martin pretend that the beams of light emitting from the floor are giant ethereal strings, moving their hands across them to the time of certain synth parts. Maybe that’s inherently silly, but it works within the song’s moody atmospherics to become one of the show’s more striking moments. To reference another of the new songs: so much of Coldplay’s live set seems to want to insist that you’re having a magical experience, that they’ve taken you into some other world, but between the abrupt shifts in tone last night and the band’s too-clean professionalism with the old stuff, the show often stopped short of getting there. They caught it, for a moment, with “Midnight.” Hopefully there will be more of that when they begin touring Ghost Stories in earnest.
Random Notebook Dump #1: It was during “Fix You” where you could suddenly smell weed for the first time last night, which seems like a weird song for people to want to get high during. Maybe they were just looking for something to do during the song’s interminable first half.
Random Notebook Dump #2: Michael Stipe walked in wearing a teal beanie, took his seat amongst the crowd quietly, and everything in the room suddenly got several times cooler.
Critical Bias: Generally speaking, I actually like Coldplay.
“Always in My Head”
“God Put A Smill On Your Face”
“Til Kingdom Come”
“Viva La Vida”
“Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”
“A Sky Full Of Stars”
“Life is for Living”