Nico Muhly is a New York-based composer and songwriter. He has collaborated with Björk, the National, Philip Glass, Usher, Antony and the Johnsons and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, among others. You can follow him on Twitter here and visit his website here.
I have always liked Coldplay. There is something inherently honest-seeming about their faces, and I liked how once they got paid, they could afford to steal (in the most loving way) from other bands who also got paid — there is something much less offensive, I think, about people who own homes with nice linens and stuff taking artistic cues from other people who own homes with nice linens. For that reason, when I smell a texture taken pretty explicitly from Sigur Rós or Arcade Fire, it feels like a lateral homage rather than the ugly “who did it first” business we suffer through in the discourses surrounding borrowing from people who are, perhaps, slightly less paid.
What I like about this new album, Ghost Stories, the band’s sixth, is how unchallenging it is. I don’t mean this in a snarky way; it is unchallenging in the way a conversation with an old friend always has an ease and fluency to it. The rhymes are so symmetrical, so square, that you can predict the end of the line based on the first word alone. The musical phrases are similar: listen to the hook that begins “Ink” — it’s a little curlicue of a phrase that could only do one thing, and it does it confidently. Very satisfying.
The album begins with “Always in My Head,” which features one of these Lovingly Borrowed from Sigur Rós textures, a sort of processed thing that contains voices (did they use one of them little Casio keyboards that enjoy such cachet in certain circles?), and then a looped guitar with delay over a plodding bass line. It unfolds perfectly, like a row house: there is no other place for the toilet to go, so obviously it goes there, at the top of the stairs. There is no other thing to do at the chorus than to bring back that guitar loop, so here it is! It is very satisfying. Incidentally, if you squint at the cover art, it looks like a very specific piece of Sigur Rós merch; I think I have it on a tote bag somewhere.
In “Magic,” we get a taste of electronic drums and a bass moving in 10ths, and gloriously, the voice is presented in an unaffected and straightforward way, and we can really hear the grain of Chris Martin’s voice, by which I mean all the little tics and rasps that make us human. This is a welcome moment. I sort of can’t bear anybody setting the word “you,” which is difficult in the English language, but we seem to be stuck with it. Martin tries, here, several variations, ranging from “yeh” to “yoo” to the slightly Texan possibilities of “yew.” He performs a moist sandhi on “but you,” rendering it slightly more like “butt chew,” for what it’s worth. “You” is a hard word to sing.
We have talked about “Ink” already.
I’m really unclear about the merits of calling your song “True Love.” It has processed beds of strings, and a pointedly uneven vocal performance — Martin approaches the microphone from various angles, and shows his work, and one gets a sense of the challenges of his range in the slightly liquid phrase endings. They start high, in the falsetto range, and slither down through various passages and rooms and end in a conversational baritone. It’s sort of a handbook of how to use one’s entire range. There is a string arrangement that is disappointingly on the nose: it moves at exactly the same time as the chords, so why is it there? It’s like having a giant picture of your body printed on your body instead of wearing clothes.
“Midnight” begins with a looped and rhythmic texture. The voice comes in like that Imogen Heap song we all bought the shit out of — what was that called, “Hide and Seek?” Love that song. “Midnight” is super exciting to me because it sort of doesn’t do anything — there isn’t really a structure so much as a sequence of concentric circles surrounding the same chord. At the midway point, there is a thickening, a tumescence, over wordless singing in the stratosphere, which then expertly melts back into the polyphonic (Imogen) heap of textures, and then, obviously, straight into four-on-the-floor, but so satisfying. An arpeggiated synth! We are at the kluhb! Sidechain gate on the processed hi-hat — it’s all here. A build and a breakdown: they’ve done everything right here. It’s ritualistic and understated, and banks not on raw power but on a slow accumulation of elements.
“Another’s Arms” feels like it sits in precisely the wrong range of Martin’s voice. I can’t quite ever tell what he’s saying — sitting on the couch watching TV? — and he’s affected too wide a range of what sound like American pronunciations of words to have the sentiment land correctly. “Me” comes out as “Meh,” and quite right, too; the effect is bland, anonymous, and the exact opposite of the vocal honesty we found in “Magic” and “True Love.”
They appear to have hired either real human beings to play violins near the beginning of “Oceans,” or at least a very expensive sample library of harmonics. I am going to hold my tongue about the success of that arrangement because I’m actually just bitter they didn’t call me; ooh, the thangz I would have done to that song! What I like about this song is that it’s really an acoustic guitar jam with a little sonar ping instead of a snare drum, and the guitar performance is natural and unquantized, which is to say, sometimes it doesn’t align perfectly, and it makes me like it more. Then there is a random electronic looped outro that delivers us directly into:
The festival jammer! “A Sky Full of Stars” is what we’re dealing with here. “‘Cause you’re a sky full of stars/I’m gonna give you my heart.” I mean, that is not a cute lyric. It sounds like the little hooks of inspirational jib-jab that are sung over dance music in the gay clubs: “Keep going/Keep reaching /I believe in u” and things of this nature. The song proceeds in a professionally straightforward way; he wants to die in [our] arms, the electronic beats break down into just a single acoustic guitar. There is good news, though: the vocal performance is delicious. He is absolutely in control of each element of range, technique, volume and vibrato. It’s too bad the lyrics are so gayspirational, though, or, perhaps not gayspirational enough?
The album closes with the enigmatically titled “O,” built on a lovely sequence of piano arpeggios. The piano is played (and recorded) beautifully, and while it is deeply repetitive, it is surprising in its lazy circles: it feels like an organic process slowly unfolding. The arrival of the bass is a welcome grounding effect. The lyrics are dead simple but here take on an almost Japanese obliqueness of image and intent; there are large pauses between the phrases, reminding us that actually the piano is the point of the song. Martin’s voice is actually at its most beautiful here: controlled but fragile, with a warmth and openness that sits in loose counterpoint to the loneliness of the song.
Like I said, I’ve always liked this band. I thought that song “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” was an absolute triumph, and “Reign of Love” is a thing of exquisite beauty. This album is texturally beautiful: they steal from the best. There is a small tragedy in the emotional anonymity of the lyrics, and in the uncommitted sonic landscape as it relates to acoustic instruments: is there not an additional shade to be found from a really turn’t-out string arrangement, or a little mechanism made from pointed flutes? When Martin is singing athletically — as opposed to from the couch in the TV room — he is in top form. It’s comfortable and confident: the voice of an old friend on the phone, a neighborhood bar, a question to which you already know the answer.