Review: Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends”

Jun 18, 2008 11:02am

Over the last eight years, Coldplay have been extremely popular.  They have also been extremely abused in the culture. Somehow they’ve gotten a reputation for being a sappy, “sensitive” band.  Chris Martin’s falsetto warble has become the butt of jokes in some hipster circles.  Apparently those people don’t remember that back in 2000, the now mighty Coldplay were the little, semi-obscure indie-rock band that could.  Some of the people making jokes about Coldplay have actually probably never heard a Coldplay record all the way through.  Others may be turncoats who once loved the band, until they became multi-platinum thus rendering them “uncool” by definition.  Well, Coldplay are still that same band that made “Parachutes” back in 2000, and out of the bands right now selling stacks of records, they are one of the best.  They are worthy.  Too often, critics are quick to compare them to U2 or even Radiohead, but that does them a disservice.  Coldplay may share a few trace elements with those two bands, but they have an anthemic style of their own.  Somehow, they can turn little repeated riffs into something monumental.  Listen to how simple their 2002 hit “In My Place” sounds, but its feeling and impact are huge!  Remember the steady grind of their debut single “Yellow?”  It wasn’t revolutionary on the surface, but somehow it was fresh.  Their style is one of carefully honed mechanics.  Many bands have seen their success and tried to tinker with it.  There are many “sensitive” singer-songwriter types who have tried to hijack Martin’s signature vocal style but to little effect.  There’s only one Chris Martin.  I have a feeling in the next few years, the second-rate Martin-impressionists will be as omnipresent as dime-store, cheap Eddie Vedder knockoffs were a decade ago.  Only original innovators summon the hack-y poseurs in such droves.  In other words, Coldplay are not U2.  They are not Radiohead.  Coldplay are Coldplay.  “Viva La Vida” is the band’s fourth studio album. It continues a line of solid work from a hard working band.  In 2000, on “Parachutes” they introduced themselves with a combination of quietly intimate song-structures and louder rockers.  On 2002′s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” they honed all the potential and buildup from their first album into a finely tuned masterpiece.  In 2005, things got a little strange with the excellent but often misunderstood “X & Y.”  In spots that record was bewildering and it took a few listens to realize that it was actually just as strong as the other two, just a little more challenging.  Even some of that album’s detractors cannot deny the power behind the single “Fix You.”  “Viva La Vida” is one of the boldest, loudest statements this band has ever made.  It sounds like it was crafted to be blasted in arenas, concert halls and large churches.  It’s an enormous record.  That’s not a surprise when you consider one of the three co-producers of the record is champion pro, Brian Eno.  The other two producers are Markus Dravs and Rik Simpson, but this album definitely has Eno’s stamp on it.  Those expecting wispy ballads will find something different here.  This band sounds alive and well.  They use all their skill and their established stylistic maneuvers and add on new layers of ingenuity, whether in the form of a string section or a pouncing organ.  This sounds like Coldplay, but it doesn’t sound particularly like any of their other records.  When you listen to this album make sure you are listening on a good set of speakers.  It took five people to mix this record!  (One of them, by the way, was Andy Wallace, who thanks to his work on a little album called “Nevermind,” stands firmly as a mixing legend.)  The record is best when pumped on a big set of speakers. This way the songs envelop you with their elaborate level of detail.  On a smaller, dinkier system, elements get buried, and Martin’s voice in particular sounds to be in the background.  In other words, this is the kind of album you’d wish they’d make a DVD audio mix of in order to hear it in full-surround mode.  Interestingly, the record is set off by an instrumental.  “Life in Technicolor” introduces itself with a soft, warm digital fade-in, before it charges off, led by a strong, ringing, simple riff.  The track builds for its whole 2:30 time-span, with a comfortingly familiar atmospheric backdrop.  Turn this on, lie on your bed, and close your eyes.  Suddenly Martin’s vocal tone is present as he introduces the brooding “Cemeteries of London,” which sounds like a cross between the song “Spies” off “Parachutes” and some sort of flamenco folk song.  When this album was in its early stages, it was rumored to have more of a Latin feel.  The hand-clapping rhythm here is the only evidence of that.  Jonny Buckland’s guitar rings with a vague hint of dissonance.  Once again, he hasn’t sounded this good since the early days.  With a haunting, repeated piano line, the song ends.  “Lost!” may be the best track on the album.  It’s a stomp-worthy organ-driven jam with a firm, beat-driven backbone provided by drummer, Will Champion.  Its chord progression is reminiscent of the Cure’s “Maybe Someday” (from their 2000 album “Bloodflowers”) but Martin has built a strong melody of his own.  That stomping backbeat may come in handy too someday.  It begs to be used as the center of a hip-hop flavored remix.  Martin did make an appearance on Kanye West’s album “Graduation.” Perhaps Coldplay can call in West here to return the favor.  It might be interesting.  This is a hit single if I’ve ever heard one.  Church-organ chording isn’t usually this head-bob worthy.  “Those who are dead are not dead, they’re just living in my head.”  These are the opening lines of “42.”  There’s an ominous, nearly eerie aspect to the sound of these words sung backed by a quasi-minor-key piano line.  Death imagery is all over this record in every direction.  Ironically, the production is among the brightest Coldplay have ever had.  Perhaps it is this paradoxical tension that drives the record.  A haunting bit of strings enter, giving the track some warmth. Once Martin finishes this opening intro, the whole band kicks in and they rock out a little. Bassist, Guy Berryman and Champion keep a tightly wound rhythmic-structure going, while Buckland’s guitar once again gives us some dirtier, dissonant sounds.  It’s refreshing to hear him get a little messy again.  There’s an Eastern quality to this song’s section.  Suddenly, though the track takes an unexpectedly sunny right turn, with Martin singing brightly, “You thought you might be a ghost.  You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close.”  Buckland’s guitar now leads the band in this instant glimpse of daylight. All of them furiously revel in the brightness for a few seconds, before Martin repeats the darker lines that opened the song.  It’s a strong example of how to execute sudden musical mood transitions.  Well done! “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love” is next, driven by Champion’s near techno backbeat.  Once again this is bright and chipper.  The band works like an intricate machine led by Marin’s pounding piano.  When Buckland’s (still pleasantly dirty) guitar enters to add another rhythmic element, it becomes clear why this band is so beloved.  They’re extremely skilled.  A murky, ambient tone threatens to attack the track, but the band plays as if fighting to be heard.  It’s a smart move displaying a vitality rarely exhibited. Why this track consists of two songs is really unclear.  They don’t really fade into each other. “Lovers in Japan” rocks out, while “Reign of Love” is a softer, yet expertly crafted ballad.  Martin’s piano playing here sounds like raindrops trickling on a pond. Echoing guitar elements make the structure even more enthralling.  “Yes” is seven minutes long.  Its piano and string-section opening is deceiving.  A few seconds in, it get a bluesy walk, and Buckland, (still branching out) gives us some more interesting sounds.  Martin sings here in the lowest register of his voice.  It’s something he rarely does, and it gives the song a pleasant creepiness.  Berryman’s bass bounces like a rubber-band, and suddenly the track sounds like a war between an electric roadhouse blues guitar and an Indian-style string section.  In this chorus, Martin slinks out the lines, “If you’d only say yes. / Whether you will is anybody’s guess. / God, only God knows I’m trying my best. / But I’m just so tired of this loneliness.”  He sings like either a man at the end of his rope or like someone about ready to accept a deal with the devil. The fact that Martin has this dark element to him is thoroughly surprising. When his voice lifts to a more recognizable level, there’s an unexpected lift.  This is awesome in every which way.  Halfway through the track, it seemingly ends.  Suddenly a fuzzed-out guitar fills the speakers and in comes Martin’s falsetto, drenched in reverb.  If you listen carefully, there’s also a low vocal part buried in the mix.  Once again, Buckland is really branching out.  On this record he shows the harder edge he had on “Yellow” and “Shiver.”  This is not mellow or sleepy.  This is a rock record.  You will know the song “Viva La Vida,” because it is the band’s current single.  It’s ubiquitous thanks to the fine people at Apple.  It also as it turns out has become the band’s highest charting single on Billboard’s “Hot 100″ singles chart. (As I write this, it stands at #2.)  Backed by a stellar string-section, Martin sings like a fallen leader. “That was when I ruled the world.”  Religious symbolism is all about with mentions of “missionaries” and “Roman-Catholic choirs,” and once again Champion is backing this with a pounding, near techno stomp.  It’s a lot to digest, but it’s the kind of thing Coldplay are experts at pulling off.  It seems lofty, because it is.  It’s impossibly grand, but it works.  “Violet Hill” was the band’s first single off the record.  It started streaming off their myspace page a couple of months ago.  Again, flanked by ambience, the track shows a darker side.  Martin’s voice echoes with authority, as he sternly pounds out chords with the intensity of a soldier forging his way into battle.  Buckland rocks again with some intense guitar accents, and the song marches along at a brisk pace.  It sounds like an old-time-y battle hymn.  It sounds like something passed down for many generations and given a modern arrangement.  It doesn’t sound like something on a pop album.  That’s a good quality.  “Strawberry Swing” is lighter with Champion and a string section giving the illusion of a marching band, while Buckland plays an intricately layered, two-part guitar line.  It’s a piece that constantly moves with an upbeat soul.  Martin sings, “It’s such a perfect day.”  You can almost imagine him swinging back and forth with a giant grin on his face.  This is a definite option for a surprising leftfield single.  The album closes with “Death and All His Friends,” which shows the band’s more famous softer side to thrilling effect.  Martin sings in a soft, friendly, near whisper.  “So come over, just be patient and don’t worry.”  As a lyricist, you believe him.  He delivers these words with a comforting sincerity.   There’s pleasant interplay between Martin’s piano and Buckland’s guitar, and then Berryman and Champion come in and turn the quiet song into a charging stomp.  Throughout, this record constantly changes.  Structures are not set in stone.  There’s constant evolution. It makes the whole experience all the more interesting.  As the track fades out, it fades back into the warm digital tones that opened the album.  The band has taken us full circle.  “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends,” as an album should surprise many people who have preconceived notions of what a Coldplay album should sound like.  That being said, it shouldn’t disappoint longtime fans.  With these ten tracks, Coldplay have really expanded their reach.  If you listen to it for all its details, you will discover that this is an excellent record.  Coldplay have put out nothing but good records.  This is a statement to their continued evolution and staying power.  This band deserves credit.  Excellence isn’t always easy to sustain.  This album is more than excellent.  It’s stupendous.  If you don’t think so now, in a year or so, you probably will. 

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