Before Imagine Dragons, before Foster the People, before Bastille and Passenger and Capital Cities, there was Coldplay: a rock band, more or less, combining anthemic choruses with mild electronic textures in songs designed to pluck heartstrings too hardy for pop.
And before the separation that set off a tabloid frenzy, there was a relationship: the seemingly happy marriage between Chris Martin, Coldplay’s deep-feeling frontman, and Gwyneth Paltrow. In March the two posted a note on Paltrow’s website saying they’d decided to “consciously uncouple,” as they memorably phrased it.
That’s a build-up and a breakdown, in other words, key developments that Coldplay addresses on its sixth studio album, “Ghost Stories.” Due out Monday (but streaming now on iTunes), it’s a confessional tell-all that doubles as a strategic career move.
You feel the strategy at work in the scale of the album, by some measure Coldplay’s smallest. At a moment when their many inheritors are going as big as possible -- think of Imagine Dragons’ paint-splattered collaboration with Kendrick Lamar at January’s Grammy Awards -- Martin and his bandmates are distinguishing themselves by taking the opposite tack, stripping away much of the bombast that once defined their sound.
On their previous album, 2011’s “Mylo Xyloto,” the musicians pumped up their songs with virtually everything they could think of: booming hip-hop beats; buzzing, old-school rave synths; duet vocals from Rihanna in the shimmering “Princess of China.” By the time you reached the record’s 14th track, the swollen "Up With the Birds," your ears felt utterly exhausted, overwhelmed by whimsy.
In contrast, the nine songs on “Ghost Stories” hum gently, cultivating an effective sense of intimacy. As always, there’s a lot going on in the music, sculpted by the band along with various collaborators such as producer Paul Epworth and keyboardist Jon Hopkins; Timbaland even shows up in the credits for “True Love.”
But the various acoustic and electronic elements here are layered with a delicacy that Coldplay hasn’t put across since its 2000 debut, “Parachutes.” A tidy guitar figure unfurls over a burbling beat in “Ink,” while “Oceans” shades a folky singer-songwriter arrangement with tasteful strings. “Magic,” the album’s soft-touch lead single, sounds like it was modeled after the xx, the rigorously minimalist English band; “Midnight” has traces of Bon Iver and James Blake.
And that Timbaland beat in “True Love”? It feels muffled, as though the band wanted just a taste of the producer's future-shock funk, not a full helping. Only one song, “A Sky Full of Stars,” which Coldplay made with the Swedish DJ Avicii, works itself up to the kind of inexorable climax that became a Coldplay signature thanks to hits like “Clocks” and “Viva La Vida.” Confetti duly strewn, the band then reverts to hushed piano-ballad mode for “O,” this album’s accepting sigh of a closer.
If Coldplay has cleverly set aside its trademark grandiosity, though, Martin is still flexing the emotional bravado for which he’s known. These are undoubtedly breakup songs, full of grim imagery and pitiful little details. “I think of you / I haven’t slept” are the singer’s first words on the album; in “Another’s Arms,” he mumbles as though half-asleep on the couch, “Late night watching TV / Used to be you here beside me.”
Yet for all the melancholy, there isn’t much palpable regret. Over and over, Martin presents himself proudly as the wronged party in a broken relationship, the man whose devotion never wavered in spite of whatever (or whoever) was encouraging him to bail. “Got a tattoo said ‘Together through life’ / Carve in your name with my pocket knife,” he sings in “Ink,” his voice oozing satisfaction.
In “Magic” he doesn’t “want anybody else but you,” even after being “broken into two.” Does he still believe in magic? “Of course I do,” he answers himself. Duh.
Martin ventures more fully into this noble victimhood in “True Love," pleading, “Tell me you love me / If you don’t, then lie," and "Oceans," where he practically licks his lips in anticipation of the heartbreak to come: "I'm ready for it all, love / Ready for the pain." It's like he's bragging about his sensitivity, projecting an inside-out swagger that keeps the music from feeling too sorry for itself. (Compare "Ghost Stories" to the Black Keys' "Turn Blue," another new rock record inspired by a singer's romantic split, and it's clear how much more tension this one has.)
Only Martin and Paltrow know if this version of their separation represents a true Hollywood story. But give him credit for somehow making his sad sack into an action hero.