The Royal Albert Hall has never looked so diminutive. Playing in the round, grouped together on a little stage, Coldplay seemed to tower over their surroundings. Contrary to the usual health risks of life in a rock band, the foursome have become noticeably fitter and stronger-looking than the weedy “bedwetters” they were scorned as 15 years ago. The tall, athletic Chris Martin has transformed himself into a particularly fine physical specimen. You wouldn’t bet against him in a basketball one-on-one with his pal Jay-Z.
They were playing two nights here, the end of a brief run of dates in modestly sized venues in six cities around the world. In a break from usual practice they’ve decided not to do a full tour in support of new album Ghost Stories. The approach is in keeping with the album, which swaps their usual anthems for a more reflective style. Its subject is the break-up of Martin’s marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow – addressed at the start of the show when he sang: “I think of you/I haven’t slept,” the first lines from Ghost Stories’ opener “Always in My Head”.
Martin had an imploring look as he delivered these pained words, holding the microphone with two hands as though praying, turning around to engage each part of the circular auditorium, a constellation of stars hanging above his head. The music was graceful and subdued, a consoling wash of sound. Yet any prospect of a night of emotional unburdening was soon dashed. Martin said nothing revealing between songs, limiting himself to typical arena shout-outs – “I can see you, you’re beautiful, but I can’t hear you,” and so on – while the music was mostly played at full throttle, as though to fill a much vaster space.
New track “Magic” had a subtle modern-R&B undertow, a sign of Coldplay’s under-appreciated ability to forge connections with mainstream pop. But Will Champion’s drumming was too loud and given unnecessary reverb, an overwhelming effect. It was a mindset that favoured the big anthems from previous albums, with Martin fleeing the small stage to race around the venue for “Viva la Vida” like an athlete bounding out of the traps.
A moment of genuine intimacy came with the introspective electronic ballad “Midnight”, sung by Martin lying down on the stage and then on his knees, a redemptive shimmer of dance beats building up around him. But generally the evening had an end-of-term feel. These would be Coldplay’s “last shows for a while”, Martin said. The demob-happy singer proceeded to interrupt “Til Kingdom Come” to remark about the noise an excitable audience member was making and pause “Don’t Panic” in order to joke about guitarist Jonny Buckland, “the shyest man in the world”, singing it.
The atmosphere was electric, the audience palpably thrilled to see one of the world’s biggest bands at close quarters. It was intimate in that sense – but not the other sense, the more exposing one.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards