It’s a long time, a very, very long time, since I bought a Coldplay album. Has any band of the past 20 years been so consistently irritating? Oasis were aggressively annoying, which isn’t the same thing. I quite liked the first Coldplay album, particularly ‘Trouble’, and A Rush of Blood to the Head was a fine record, full of the sense of an ambitious young band finding out what they were capable of. After that, though, they made the fatal Faustian decision to become the biggest band in the world. Although I have made it my business to hear subsequent albums, partly out of curiosity and partly to confirm my prejudices, actual folding money has not been involved. Chris Martin’s marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow and their decision to start naming their children after fruit seemed to say it all. Bands don’t often return from such dark places as this.
Then I read somewhere that the ambient producer Jon Hopkins was on the new record. This was a good omen. Hopkins started out as Imogen Heap’s keyboard player and has worked a lot with Brian Eno, most notably on an improvised 2010 album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Opal). His real calling card, though, was a 2011 collaboration with the Scots folkie King Creosote, Diamond Mine, which was nominated for the Mercury and should have won. Creosote, real name Kenny Anderson, had recorded countless albums over the years, many of them apparently on the hoof with just an acoustic guitar for company. Diamond Mine was quite different, half a dozen bleak songs of the Western Isles bathed in ambient soundscapes. Hopkins’s contributions were not just sympathetic but beautiful, unexpected, transcendent, too. If I were Kenny Anderson, I’d never want to work with anyone else ever again.
Since then, though, Hopkins has become a busy man, recording solo albums and soundtracks, producing and remixing. I recently found a CD by a young English singer-songwriter called Dan Arborise, who favours chunky sweaters and has dreadlocks so long they have their own postal district. (I know nothing about him at all, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a few years ago he was Arborise D.M.P.G., head of house and captain of games.) Around In Circles was produced by Hopkins and it’s lovely, full of multiply overdubbed acoustic guitars, and quiet little washes of electric guitar providing Fripp-like textures. Some songs go on so long you could hypnotise someone with them. Again, dance music techniques have been used to shape acoustic music, but with very singular results. If you ever doubted how much the right producer can bring to a record, the evidence is here.
So the Coldplay album was purchased online and delivered with typical fanfare: an email telling me it had been posted, an email telling me it would arrive today and an email telling me it had already arrived, a mere 24 hours before it came through the letterbox. And here’s the rub. Jon Hopkins only worked on one track, and on that track he is named as one of four co-producers, not counting Coldplay themselves.
Then I discovered that he had been all over Vida La Viva like a rash. He had co-produced several tracks, played keyboards on others and worked with the band for the best part of a year. But because I hadn’t much liked the album, I hadn’t noticed.
Finally, the greatest surprise of all: Ghost Stories (Parlophone) is really good. It has been brutally reviewed, with Chris Martin’s post-divorce lyrics widely lampooned, and maybe justifiably so, as his lyrics have never been up to much. But do you know what? You can hardly hear them. They are not printed on the inner sleeve. They need hardly trouble us. And the music is delightful.
Gone are the soaring choruses and the jack-and-jill melodies designed for the world’s enormodromes. This is a quieter, more intimate album, more electronic, very Jon Hopkins in fact, a little like Kate Bush’s recent material, and I think someone may have been listening to Elbow as well. There was a time when everyone sounded like Coldplay. Now not even Coldplay do. It’s a record I think I could grow to love.
So what does this little adventure tell us? Very little, other than the fact that preconceptions are often valueless and it’s worth doing some research from time to time. I’ll still be buying Jon Hopkins’s next album, whatever it turns out to be.
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