Review Summary: Eno kids cheer up a little, accidentally creating their masterpiece.
Music fans, musicians and critics alike are collectively aware of how much a debut album can say about a band- how much they have to live up to if all goes well with it, and how much they have to prove themselves if it does not. In turn, it is well known of the curses of the second album, and how many band have failed on the back of it. There have even been cases of a difficult third album (First Impressions of Earth
and Wincing The Night Away
immediately spring to mind). It is indeed a rare occurrence, however, where so much would be resting upon the fourth album. But, then again, not a lot in the careers of Coldplay could be defined as expected or predictable.
took the band to stardom, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head
took them to superstardom, and 2005’s X & Y
sealed the deal of making the band international icons and, arguably, the biggest band in the world. Despite this, their biggest issue as a band thus far has not been creating great songs, but creating an album. Not just a collection of songs with some hit singles shuffled awkwardly in; a solid, start-to-finish work of art- an album.
All three of the band’s previous works have featured some brilliant songs, with some of the better singles of the past decade- “Yellow”, “Trouble”, “The Scientist”, “In My Place”, “Fix You” and “Speed of Sound” are all simply fantastic pop songs- beautifully arranged, written and performed works that also happened to appeal to the masses. This, unfortunately, has not translated to their albums, which have often blended the singles with filler, aimless ballads or dull, cliché-ridden love songs. With this in mind, Coldplay entered the studio once again, with a newfound ambition to create something new in one hand and legendary producer/musician Brian Eno in the other. The final result, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends
, is a complete evolution of Coldplay as a band. Over repeated listens, it will slowly sink in that this is Chris Martin his rarely-merry men at their most ambitious, and subsequently creating their most impressive work to date.
If anything, Viva
can be viewed and approached as a correction of many of the band’s flaws. Not once does the album drag its weight (see most of the second half of Rush
) or lose its focus or direction (see majority of X & Y
). Instead, the record soars to a league of its own, its wings a combination of sheer confidence in what they are doing- a characteristic that certainly wasn’t present on X & Y
)- and a culmination of fearless leader Chris Martin’s hopes, dreams, fears and visions. An evasion of the usual suspects in terms of instrumentation, song structure and even, occasionally, subject matter also assist the album’s progression. Don’t go expecting breakbeats or crunching drop D guitar, however- this is still, at its essence, the Coldplay we have come to know over the years. This time, however, this particular version of Coldplay is a far more inventive and skilled one, presenting a band that have evolved and, for want of a better phrase, “grown up”.
The ten tracks featured in the album are a string of very different creations that manage to come together beautifully regardless, from the spaced out opening of “Life in Technicolor”, through to the white-boy gospel of “Lost!” and the dynamic contrasts of the two-part “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love”. The best moment of the record, however, takes form in its two triumphant title tracks. The epic march of “Viva la Vida”, complete with a wordless shout-along that would make “Chelsea Dagger” blush and lyrics depicting a fallen king who longs for his former glories, could well be the single of the year. Closer “Death and All His Friends”, conversely, is far more stripped back, presenting a pensive and uplifting piano number that builds up into a full-band opus.
It appears Chris Martin was not bluffing when he told reporters the band was throwing out their old tricks to learn new ones. This becomes ever more apparent upon each listen to Viva
- aspects of previously untouched genres like chamber pop, space rock, ambience, blues, dream-pop, alternative rock, gospel and prog are thrown abundantly into the mix. There is even the spice of flamenco in “Cemeteries of London”, with fast-paced handclaps and a swirling, upbeat 6/8 signature. It will throw fans of the last few records, most certainly- the band has almost completely abandoned the feel-good stadium piano rock format. This ultimately proves, nevertheless, to be the best thing about the record: Coldplay are, for the first time since Parachutes
, displaying symptoms of freedom and- cue the shock and awe- sound like they are truly enjoying themselves.
Phil Spector may have created the “wall of sound”, but it is the team of Eno and Coldplay that have made a tower of it. Over forty-six minutes, there is always something happening to keep you, as a listener, genuinely interested.
Waves of sequencer echoes and bleeps, an undercurrent of synth patterns and gorgeously unconventional arrangements of string quartet orchestration gracefully glide over the band themselves, who are already occupied with the task of recreating their roles in the band.
Arguably, the most significant of these recreations is drummer Will Champion, who creates a remarkably solid backbone to the sound scapes of the record in a fashion far less conventional, yet far more successful, than his work on the last three albums. Focus is placed upon the actual drums- in some cases, such as “Viva La Vida”, Champion does not even use a drum kit, instead using floor toms and a timpani. It is also notable how much he has shied away from consistent cymbal accentuations and standard rock beats. Perhaps it’s for this reason that his double crash moment on lead single “Violet Hill” comes down upon the listener with an unexpectedly tremendous force that one would never associate with Coldplay’s music. Rapid-moving jazz brush patterns, such as the rollicking “Lovers in Japan”, as well as the minimalist, almost hip-hop styling of the beats in “Lost!” and “Yes” perfectly exemplify Champion’s headway of his role in the band.
Jonny Buckland’s guitar, as well, has made an angular shift away from his Edge-like work on X & Y
; now attempting a sound similar to that of his namesake, Greenwood. His style moves in a chameleon-like fashion, from a dramatic, gritty David Gilmour style (“Violet Hill”) to a post-punk buzzsaw (the second half of “Yes”, entitled “Chinese Sleep Chant”). Ambient and unique guitar effects (such as the “reverse” effect on the guitar in “Strawberry Swing”) also emphasise his broadened six-stringed horizons. Even Chris Martin- a vocalist that is often limited at best- tries out ominous lower-key vocals on songs such as “Cemeteries in London” and “Yes”, adding a different dimension to songs already boldly different from the band’s past.
Chris Martin has boldly stated that he does not care if this record sells a million less copies than previous. X & Y
sold ten million. Thus, if this idea does come to fruition, nine million fans both old and new will pick up Viva la Vida
and experience the best thing these musicians have done with their careers. A dark horse of a record, it is versatile, adventurous and truly unexpected.
All you can really say is it sucks to be one of the million who’ll miss out.