In an interview in the latest Rolling Stone, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin jokes, “I would still give my left ball to write anything as good as OK Computer.” Judging by the the band’s prolixly titled new album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, all of Martin’s reproductive parts are still intact. But while the band may still be in search of its masterpiece, Viva La Vida does find Martin and company willing to extend their musical boundaries—albeit safely—making for an occasionally brilliant album that’s exponentially more vibrant and engaging than 2005’s generally stale X&Y.
To aid in the their efforts in deviating from a Coldplay-by-the-numbers approach, the band turned to renowned studio egghead and “sonic landscape” guru Brian Eno, known best as a producer for his work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Coldplay heroes U2. Inspired by Eno and by their own globe-trotting, the band infuses their customary soaring Anglo pop with an eclectic batch of world music color. On “Life in Technicolor,” the album’s instrumental opening track, a Persian santur emerges from a warm bath of synthesizers to provide the hook as acoustic guitar, piano, and a barrage of percussion slowly join in, propelling the song steadily towards Martin’s climatic “woah-oh-oh’s.” The frenetic, flamenco-flavored “Cemeteries of London” follows, offering a gloomy counterpoint to the opening track, but the music retains too much of a sheen to match the angst hinted at in Martin’s graveyard musings: “God is in the houses/ And God is in my head/ And all the cemeteries in London/ I see God come in my garden/ But I don’t know what he said/ For my heart it wasn’t open.” A church organ and a tabla and handclap groove accentuate the uplifting “Lost!” a song on which Martin’s seemingly effortless sing-along melody is so good it makes a line like “You might be a big fish/ In a little pond” almost forgivable.
The band takes several stabs at eschewing verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structure to mixed results. “42” moves from a sleepy piano ballad that nearly sinks from Martin’s hackneyed attempt at profundity—“Those who are dead are not dead/ They’re just living in my head”—to a frenzied musical interlude led by Jonny Buckland’s caterwauling guitar to a hard-driving, arena-rock section before closing abruptly with a return to the opening verse.
Elsewhere, non-traditional song structure comes in the form of two songs sharing the same track space. An indelible plinking piano hook backed by Will Champion’s propulsive drumming and Buckland’s atmospheric, Edge-like guitars drives the soaring “Lovers in Japan,” which gives way to the ethereal “Reign of Love,” carried only by only ambient piano and strings and Martin’s delicate vocal. On the woozy “Yes,” the band’s most demonstrative break from their traditional sound and one of the album’s strongest tracks, Martin drops to a surprisingly low register to deliver a tale of loneliness and sexual temptation amid tortuous Middle-Eastern string flourishes: “There we were dying of frustration/ Saying, “Lord lead us not into temptation”/ But it’s not easy when she turns you on . . .” But whereas “Reign of Love” somewhat complements “Lovers in Japan,” the three and a half minute guitar onslaught “Chinese Sleep Dance” that follows “Yes” proves an awkward and superfluous juxtaposition.
If EMI execs were concerned that Coldplay’s musical tinkering would make for a lack of marketable singles, “Viva La Vida” has certainly alleviated their worries—as I write this review, the song sits atop Billboard’s Hot 100, making it the biggest hit of the band’s career. The song certainly doesn’t have the profile of a typical smash; songs with lyrics from the point of view of deposed king, washes of synthesized strings, dashes of splash cymbal, and the faint hammering of an anvil don’t generally top the charts. But thanks to the band's talent and Eno's know-how, they manage to mesh those elements into an ebullient orchestral pop anthem.
“Violet Hill,” the stomping lead single, offers some honest-to-goodness kick-in-the-pants rock (well, as close as Coldplay comes), with distorted guitar, thundering bass, and thudding percussion bashing away as Martin simmers at the abuse of power and the disintegration of society in wartime—“When the future’s architectured/ By a carnival of idiots on show/ You’d better lie low—while “Strawberry Swing,” a shimmering pop number steered by a backward guitar loop and African percussion, exudes a carefree, summery vibe.
On the closing track—well, sort of—“Death and All His Friends,” the band once again avoid verse-chorus structure but with more cohesion than on “42,” transitioning from a vocal/piano introduction to an extended instrumental break that veers into quasi-prog-rock that culminates with Martin declaring, “I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end/ I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge/ I don’t wanna follow Death and all of his friends.” Though Martin’s cry would make for a powerful conclusion to the album, the band goes the “hidden track” route again with “The Escapist,” which reprises the layers of bubbling synthesizers from the beginning of the album as Martin sings, “And in the end/ We like awake/ And dream of making our escape.”
Of course, “and in the end” immediately brings to mind The Beatles’ “The End.” I wonder what body parts Martin would be willing to part with to write something as good as Abbey Road?
The album’s flaws—cut-and-paste hidden tracks, herky-jerky musical meanderings, lyrics that lack the specificity to convey the larger themes Martin tries to tackle—stem from the band’s reach exceeding their grasp. And that’s a good thing. They could’ve easily cobbled together a collection of X&Y-like songs replete with a handful of wave-your-cell phone ballads and an inordinate amount of falsetto and sold ten million copies. Instead the band sounds reinvigorated, bent on making an album that reaches their musical acme. They’re not there yet, but at least they’re trying.