A great break-up album can be a thing of wonder.
From Bob Dylan's red-raw Blood on the Tracks through Marvin Gaye's self-lacerating Here, My Dear to Fleetwood Mac's vengeful Rumours, some of popular music's most powerful and cathartic albums have emerged in the wake of a brutal, soul-destroying relationship breakdown.
When Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow announced their split (or, in 2014's most ridiculed buzz-phrase, "conscious uncoupling") after a decade together three months ago, there were initially hints that Coldplay's imminent, sixth album, Ghost Stories, could be poised to join that illustrious canon. These hopes increased when the track listing featured songs entitled True Love, Midnight, and, most forebodingly, Another's Arms.
The reality proved different. Martin and Paltrow's parting did indeed suffuse every second of Ghost Stories, but rather than serving as creative inspiration for Coldplay, it produced an album that was little more than a muted mope, a morose wallow in self-pity virtually bereft of the band's trademark majestic melodies and soaring choruses. In his time of personal discomfort, Martin retreated to his musical comfort zone.
The album's heart-on-sleeve lyrical confessionals are doubtless sincere but tend towards the predictable and could easily prove excruciatingly mawkish live. Wisely, Coldplay played the cavernous Royal Albert Hall in the round, at least marginally increasing the evening's intimacy factor.
They weighted the set heavily towards the new material, with opener Always In My Head and Magic being typical. Both are melancholy, brooding washes of electronica illuminated by shards of Johnny Buckland's U2-style infinite guitar, and deal with the sense of dread occasioned by the loss of a loved one. The latter song finds Martin huskily intoning, "I just got broken, broken into two."
Martin performs even this material with his trademark puppy dog enthusiasm but a whole evening of it would drag and in any case Coldplay have always been most effective when channelling giddy, delirious euphoria. The gorgeously propulsive Clocks and God Put A Smile On Your Face re-emphasise that they may be much maligned but few, if any, stadium-filling bands routinely dream up such sublime, mercurial melodies.
The pace drops again for Ghost Stories' Ink, a throbbing reverie of a song that sees Martin back in plain-speaking mode: "All that I know is I love you so much it hurts." True Love is a similarly lovelorn lament and is received in reverential near-silence: Coldplay have always majored in empathy, and the sympathy vote being extended towards Martin tonight is palpable.
After the pattering electronica of Midnight, they return to encore with the Avicii-produced ecstatic rave track A Sky Full of Stars, a dance anthem which towers over the low-lying soundscapes of the rest of Ghost Stories like a skyscraper in a desert. To close, Martin successfully urges the crowd to turn musical comfort blanket Fix You into a joyous sing-a-long. It's a welcome reminder that Coldplay can still turn a long, dark night of the soul into a defiant celebration.
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