It happened slowly but distinctly: the evaporation of the audience's attention midway through Coldplay's show at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA. Eyes began turning toward smartphones, while several people left their seats — only to return for the hugely popular British band's rousing rendition of its breakout song "Yellow."
An arena act crammed inside a university building, Coldplay was promoting the release of its new album Monday as part of a series of small-venue gigs in cities around the world. The up-close setting was in keeping too with the cloistered spirit of "Ghost Stories."
Inspired by frontman Chris Martin's recent separation from his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, the album captures Coldplay in an uncharacteristically downbeat mode; it trades the anthemic guitar-pop choruses that drove the group to stardom for murmured vocals and burbling electronics.
The moody new tunes took pride of place at Royce Hall, where Coldplay performed "Ghost Stories" in full following a string of earlier hits such as "Paradise" and "Viva La Vida." The crowd, though, gave its approval elsewhere.
All artists encounter resistance to challenging work. Yet Martin and his bandmates aren't merely trying out new sounds on "Ghost Stories," and they weren't just playing material largely unfamiliar to the audience here. Long established as a source of broad-stroke emotional uplift — a lifestyle accessory as much a creative entity — Coldplay is wondering now if its music might serve a different function.
"Ghost Stories" argues that it can. Mournful, yes, but also borderline-hostile in the way Martin depicts himself relentlessly as the good guy — the partner willing to endure all for love — the album gets some fresh feeling out of its celebrity-gossip basis; it's a breakup record in the provocative mold of a public position statement.
But Coldplay only occasionally embodied that new perspective Monday, as in the slinky but biting "Magic" and a woozy rendition of "True Love," in which the heartbroken singer's debasement became a point of pride. "Tell me you love me," Martin moaned over the song's lush, slow-motion groove, "If you don't, then lie."
The band was strong too in "Oceans," an austere acoustic number from "Ghost Stories" that recalled Coldplay's debut, "Parachutes." And it repurposed its flair for spectacle in "Midnight," during which Martin and bassist Guy Berryman used their hands to block beams of light set to trigger eerie synth tones.
Yet in other songs Coldplay seemed a paler imitation of the group that once happily studied U2 and Bruce Springsteen in order to move arenas and stadiums. "Always in My Head," "Ink," "Another's Arms" — these had neither the head-rush exuberance of early Coldplay nor the soured intimacy of "Ghost Stories." Whatever was drawing people to Royce Hall's lobby at this point in the show, it was likely more exciting than what was happening onstage.