We all got to listen to Viva La Vida today, so we’re sort of in the same boat here. Press play, and the album starts with “Life In Technicolor,” a shimmery piece of keys and electronics that eventually moves into a “Where The Streets Have No Name”-y, lyricless rev-up, all of which is an announcement: Hey, did you hear we got Brian Eno to do this record? Hey, we did — and now we’re sorta hoping this to be Coldplay’s Joshua Tree. Unfortunately, that it is not. But it is great at not being X&Y, which is a major accomplishment. Over three albums, Chris Martin found a simple and relatively understated formula for successful songwriting: melodically, he hit it on Parachutes — verse, verse up an octave, falsetto hook — expanded it on Rush Of Bood, and made an overblown parody of it on that last one. If nothing else, this album shows the band is thinking, and is self aware: say hello to less falsetto, different song structures, and a legendary producer. Already we’re off to a good start.
Coldplay’s been talking of wanting a Reinvention, a reinvention of everything but the fact that they are a massive seller. Balancing an artistic shift with maintaining commercial appeal is not easy (see: rock history). But let’s at least start with giving props to the band for recognizing there was a problem with their last album, no matter how many millions (10 of ‘em, actually) it sold: you can’t just keep rewriting your hits (see: “Speed Of Sound” is “Clocks,” “Fix You” is “The Scientist,” etc.) and expect people not to catch on. To that point: We called “Viva La Vida” a rut buster, and the same can be said for the record. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is exactly the record this band needed to make: a slightly shifted Coldplay album, with some memorable moments, some new tricks, and an overall emotionality that will appeal to anyone who’s ever liked a Coldplay song.
So, those new tricks? Well for one there’s the Eno touch, adding Edge-y guitars here, peripheral haze there, making the U2 comparisons more firm and run deeper than big arm poses, world saving politics, and arena-filling intent. Actually Coldplay’s never been shy about confessing the bands they pilfer from — Travis, Radiohead, Echo & the Bunnymen — and the new artists that turn up in the sonic stew are ones they’ve similarly copped to liking publicly, and vocally. Last year Chris talked about being in the studio, saying for one song the wanted to “steal … from My Bloody Valentine.” Sure enough the last two minutes of “Yes” — the “hidden track” (un)titled “Chinese Sleep Chant” — hits with some unexpected, nice Loveless-lite shoegazing. Next, try taking it 2:45 into “42” and past the Radiohead-indebted middle section. Hear a sudden gearshift into Arcade Fire? It’s not just your ears, and it’s not just the newfound theatrical band attire — Chris thinks they’re the “the best band in history.”
Wind your way through the bittersweet, chanting album closer “Death And All his Friends,” and the record concludes with two minutes of that very same music that introduced it during “Life In Technicolor,” only now with lyrics: a rephrased nod to Abbey Road’s love-ly “The End.” Only Coldplay come to a different conclusion: Instead of “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make,” here we learn “in the end we lie awake and dream of making our escape.” We don’t know how Chris Martin knows that, but it’s heavy. In fact there’s lots of heavy stuff going on on this record’s lyrics, but the title sorta tells you that: Life, Death, and etc. There’s God in Chris Martin’s house and in his head on the glorified rum-swigging shanty “Cemeteries Of London,” he’s losing but not lost on, uh, “Lost,” and we learn that “those who are dead are not dead but are living in [his] head” on “42,” which you should totally tell your friend next time he’s shrooming.
His lyrics are still, at best, vague, and at worst, trying to sound important. But that vibe fits the moments that work best, the song portions calculated to be Everyman’s soundtrack: the sorta African guitar line in the first half of “Strawberry Swing” and its “such a perfect day,” the existential pangs of the organ-laced and worthy “Lost,” the uplifting “one day we’ll work it out” romance of standout “Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love,” etc. Stack those portions with “Chinese Sleep Chant,” and the previously loved up rut buster “Viva La Vida,” and you’ll find a band that’s managed to outweigh the dull moments (“Cemeteries,” the last half of “Strawberry,” “Yes,” for starters).
Chris Martin told the NYTimes, “We would love to be the biggest band in the world, but we understand if you don’t want us to be.” What’s the metric for that these days? Whatever it is, Guy Hands and EMI should be offering a bonus: this album will sell more than any other rock album this year. We’d like to think it’s ’cause they made a better record than last time, but the fact that it’s already the best selling album presale in iTunes history, and on track to be the highest first week sales of any album in iTunes history, probably refutes that theory. People still want a Biggest Band In The World. And Chris Martin has done everything in his power to play that part.
Oh yeah, there are three other guys in the band, right? Those guys, too.
Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is out 6/17 via Capitol/EMI.