You know your band is in trouble when your lead singer admits that his lyrics are terrible.
Yet back in 2005, shortly after the release of Coldplay’s chart-topping yet critically-drubbed X&Y, Chris Martin did just that. The story was picked up by dozens of publications, providing ammunition for the band’s many haters while also showcasing Martin as man who was surprisingly aware of his surroundings. Indeed, Coldplay’s quick ascension into the popular consciousness was as sudden as it was unexpected. This UK quartet was only two albums into their career when they began racking up radio hit after radio hit, winning Grammys and slanderous reviews in equal measure. Martin had a relatable, everyman croon that appealed to multiple demographics, the band (or, more accurately, his band) all the while pounding away at watered-down Radiohead balladry behind him. This was a group that was easy to love and even easier to hate, which is exactly why Martin & co. designed X&Y to be their U2-aping, anthem-filled, crowd-pleasing stadium rocker… which, clocking in at one very bloated and ballad-heavy hour, it most certainly was not (and let’s not even mention Crazy Frog defeating “Speed of Sound” on the UK singles chart).
But then… something weird happened.
Martin was still omni-present — it’s impossible to marry a star like Gwenyth Paltrow and not be in the public spotlight — but he began trying different, unusual things: first he guested on a Jay-Z track, followed by a Kanye West single. He made a hilarious, self-mocking appearance on Ricky Gervais’ Extras, and before long announced that the band would be working with the legendary Brian Eno on their next album, all while admitting that, yes, he was in fact a terrible lyricist.
Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends — despite its title sounding like a Rocky & Bullwinkle episode as penned by Jhonen Vasquez — is the least Coldplay-sounding album in the band’s discography. Gone are the piano-heavy ballads, Martin’s weepy falsetto, and the group’s naïve schoolboy charm. In their place (no pun intended) lies a sprawling, multi-textured aural tapestry that wraps itself around some of the tightest, quickest songs that Martin has ever penned. Eno bolsters the whole affair by adding worldbeat drums and the occasional choir vocal to mix things up a bit, ultimately playing it safe but still going beyond the usual Putumayo fare. In fact, opening track “Life in Technicolor” serves as the group’s first-ever instrumental number, replete with tablas, hammered dulcimers, and wordless Bono-affected howling swirling around the simple yet catchy chord progressions. “Technicolor” sets up a warning for all visitors to Viva Land: yeah, we’re trying something new, so either listen up or get out. Strange? Kind of. Necessary? Absolutely.
Admittedly, the band isn’t indulging in speed-metal shred-fests or cranking out a country album — this is Coldplay we’re talking about after all. Viva, instead, exhibits an enthusiasm and flat-out love of music that was virtually absent from X&Y. “Lost!” could have been another by-the-numbers weeper for the group, but Eno’s bristling, rattling percussion give the track a new, vibrant energy that isn’t traceable to any of the group’s previous efforts. “You might be a big fish in a little pond” Martin croons, before warning that having such a mindset “doesn’t mean you’ve won”. Yes, Martin is still relying heavily on cliché (the “December/remember” rhyme scheme is another standby that pops up this go-round), but his rehashed sentiments withstand scrutiny far better than the clunky wording that bogged down tracks like “Fix You” and “Talk”. Martin promised that his lyrics would get better, and though he’s still not on the creative level that Matt Berninger and Will Sheff occupy, he ultimately makes good on his claim.
Yet the more that Viva unfolds, the stranger the trip becomes. For example, Eno’s soundscapes prove to be so rich and detailed that Martin’s words are — for the first time ever — not the focal point of what Coldplay is all about. On the stunning, jaw-dropping highlight “Lovers in Japan”, Martin pounds away at a bouncy toy-piano melody that’s more reminiscent of Dexy’s Midnight Runners than Travis, all leading into a chorus where guitarist Jonny Buckland gets to unleash what might be the catchiest guitar riff he’s written since “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” (and yes, he absolutely bathes in the moment).
“Yes”, meanwhile, offers a descending verse vocal reminiscent of Thom Yorke, mashing it with a chorus straight out of the Oasis playbook, which — when taken together — makes for a remarkably strange trip down post-Britpop England (though Eno’s string quartet flourishes aren’t making it any easier to decipher). The rock guitars that populate “Violet Hill”, the backwards-looped slide guitar in “Strawberry Swing”, the off-key Sonic Youth riffing that concludes “42”… it truly sounds like that for the first time in the band’s career, Coldplay is actually using the ludicrous studio budget that they’re provided with each for release, here indulging in every passing whim and fancy, all while Eno serves as the playground supervisor, the results proving to be as potent as they are varied.
In a Rolling Stone interview that emerged the week of Viva La Vida‘s release (excerpted here), Martin discusses how the band “took apart” different albums with Eno, figuring how they worked and learning from the experience — Radiohead’s OK Computer being the band’s first and most obvious test subject. In the search for something different, Martin discusses challenging himself to write suites like Radiohead did, avoiding the usual verse-chorus-verse structure that will haunt their Top 40 singles until the day they die. Though it’s a nice pep-talk, the band doesn’t really get it: across Viva‘s 10 songs, we’re actually treated to 13 tracks.
The full official title of the track “Yes” is actually “Yes / Chinese Sleep Chant”, where immediately after the four-minute mark, the band decides to break into a guitar rock slug-fest that wouldn’t be too out of place on Keane’s Under the Iron Sea (ironic considering how that band is a total Coldplay knockoff). Why they’re kept on the same track space is somewhat of a mystery, though: if Martin wants to delude himself into thinking that he’s writing actual “Paranoid Android”-styled suites (the other victims on Viva are “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love” and “Death and All His Friends / The Escapist”), then so be it. As easy as it is to be taken by the neon sway of the multi-colored textures and major-key confetti, Viva‘s heart is made of a bunch of Coldplay songs; we’re just lucky that this time around it’s a particularly good batch.
With that said, Viva la Vida — as ultimately satisfying as it is — still has a hard time shaking its unabashed idol worship. Many weeks before the disc dropped, the band pulled a pseudo-Radiohead stunt by allowing fans to sign up for an e-mail which will send them lead single “Violet Hill” for free, the offer good for one week only. It’s a strange move for such a big band (especially for one that’s signed to a label as huge as Capitol/EMI), but such optimism was ultimately drowned out by the fact that “Violet Hill” is the weakest track on the entire disc. Which track currently sits at #2 on the Billboard chart as I write this (trailing behind Lil’ Wayne, of all things)? Why, the title track of course. Though the song is a bit of a red herring, “Viva la Vida” is the most accessible, immediate, and instantly gratifying number that the band has ever penned. The quick synth/string jabs, the almost dance-like drum beat, the excellent use of strings in the second verse… the list goes on. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the track also contains the best lyrics that Martin has ever written:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sweep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
[…] I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringin’
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never, never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world
Do these words look familiar? Of course they do: “Viva la Vida” was featured in an iPod ad that proved inescapable during the weeks leading up to the album’s release. In the clip, the group isn’t in silhouette: you can actually see their faces. So far in the iPod ad linage, we’ve only seen the faces of U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney (and technically Feist, but it was only in a previously-filmed music video clip, so it doesn’t really count). The band is completely aware of the leagues that they’re now batting in, and just like U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney, their superstar status doesn’t take away from the fact that they still crank out some outright terrible songs on occasion, as evidenced here by tired dreck like “42” and “Violet Hill”. Of course, clocking in at only 47 minutes, one can’t help but feel that Coldplay has jammed several albums worth of ideas into one place, the band easily setting themselves up for a Be Here Now-styled fall, but instead coming out the other end with a cohesive disc that actually rewards repeated listens.
No, Viva la Vida is not their masterpiece, but for now, it’s as close as they’re gonna get.