Coldplay has been around for nearly 15 years now. For all of that time, they’ve enjoyed consistent mainstream success, possibly because they are the one big rock band whose career has been unapologetically devoted to romantic music. It isn’t just that Coldplay writes love songs; they write the sort of sweeping, melodramatic ballads that make you feel like you’re living in the big budget Hollywood drama version of your life. Chris Martin sings about love without cynicism, and doesn’t try to obscure his meaning or apologize for being corny. He’s extremely earnest and achingly sweet, and if you listen to his songs imagining they are being sung to you, you feel as though he thinks you’re the most beautiful and amazing person who has ever lived. Coldplay never goes away in part because they’re consistently good at writing hit singles — “Yellow,” “In My Place,” “Clocks,” “The Scientist,” “Fix You,” “Viva La Vida,” “Paradise” — but also because there is always room in pop music for this sort of romance, whether it’s from Taylor Swift, Rihanna, or Drake, who is basically the Coldplay of hip-hop. But among rock bands, Coldplay is pretty much the only game in town.
Part of the reason Coldplay has so little competition outside of singer-songwriter dudes like Ed Sheeran and John Mayer is because romantic love songs are rarely valued within rock culture. Sometimes they’re derided as a sellout move, like how in the ’80s, hair metal power ballads by the likes of Poison and Bon Jovi were mocked by fans of harder, more self-consciously macho metal bands like Metallica and Anthrax who distanced themselves from love and sex entirely. Punks and indie rockers typically approach the notion of writing love songs with irony and cynicism; new wavers in the ’80s dressed up their love songs in dark drama and grave seriousness; and the alt-rockers of the ’90s — R.E.M., Nirvana, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots — mostly hid straightforward lyrics about love in songs that were otherwise made of nonsense words. This dismissive attitude about love songs is baked into two of rock’s most defining binaries — The Rolling Stones are seen as cooler than The Beatles because they have fewer love songs, and within The Beatles, John Lennon’s often cynical view of love is held up as evidence of his genius while Paul McCartney’s lovey dovey lyrics are widely considered to be his greatest flaw as an artist.
Coldplay’s commitment to writing romantic tunes has made them a punching bag for years — just Google “Coldplay sucks” and behold at least a decade of online vitriol — and sometimes even their biggest fans seem embarrassed by them. Grantland writer Steven Hyden, a fan of the band, recently wrote a career overview in advance of their new album Ghost Stories in which he constantly apologized for their wussiness while praising most of their work. The British music site The Quietus ran a review of Ghost Stories that epitomizes the sort of apoplectic, sputtering rage many macho rock fans feel just thinking about their agreeable brand of soft rock. “Never in human f***ing history, since fish first slithered onto the f***ing land and sprouted limbs has there been a more nondescript f***ing decade than the f***ing Noughties and never has there been a more nondescript f***ing group than those gelatinous c***lords Coldplay!” reads one of the more restrained bits.
Chris Martin’s reputation as the biggest wuss in rock music hasn’t been helped by his relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow, arguably the most polarizing celebrity in all of Hollywood. Since their marriage in 2003, Paltrow’s snobby persona has only amplified the sense that Martin is deeply uncool and insufferably twee. The pair’s recent “conscious uncoupling” is the subject of Ghost Stories, and Martin sounds genuinely devastated about it. All nine songs on the record deal with either the crumbling of a relationship or its immediate aftermath, and every step of the way, Martin sounds like a man who is either trying to hold on to his marriage or win his wife back with grand romantic gestures. Paltrow is never vilified on this record, and refreshingly, there isn’t much self-pity either. Martin mostly just clings desperately to living a “happily ever after” life even when it’s clear that their relationship is dissolving.
Ghost Stories is about standing up for a fervent belief in romance. The album hits its climax with the ecstatic, EDM-flavored “A Sky Full of Stars,” a song in which Martin declares his love as boldly as he possibly can. He wants to give her his heart, he wants to die in her arms, he doesn’t care if she tears him apart. It’s a string of clichés, sure, but it sounds true whether you’re at the stage of a relationship where you’re just begging someone to stay with you, or at the beginning of one. (Martin is rumored to be dating model Alexa Chung.) This song has been written many times over, but Coldplay does it exceptionally well — partly because they are experts at making this overwhelming emotion sound as majestic as it can feel, and partly because Martin is so committed to the sentiment. The more mellow and resigned songs on Ghost Stories feel just as committed. “If you were to ask me, after all we’ve been through / Still believe in magic?’ / Yes, I do,” he sings near the start of the record, answering Paltrow or anyone in the world who doubts his faith in true love. “Of course I do.”