Review Summary: …Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Coldplay
If you had told me that one of my favorite albums of the year would have been the latest CD from arch-nemesis Coldplay, I’d have laughed merrily as I caved your obviously infected skull in with a blackjack. Well, color me 12 shades of surprised, because Coldplay underwent a massive overhaul and came out better than ever. I’ve always hated the band as well as the horribly-named tag “piano rock” (doesn’t that conjure up images of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis: pianists who actually rocked
?), and it seemed like X&Y
finally convinced a few people that perhaps the band wasn’t as great as they made it out to be. On that record Coldplay had first tried to branch out in the form of tentative Krautrock knockoffs and scored its biggest hit with “Speed of Sound,” which I refer to as “Clocks (N-Fearior Mix)”. Perhaps feeling threatened by the first taste of backlash, Coldplay took some time off before releasing another album. Amazingly, by bringing in one of the subjects of the band’s plagiarism, Brian Eno, Coldplay craft their most accomplished effort yet.
For the first time in their career, the members of Coldplay act like a real band rather than the backup musicians for some Thom Yorke tribute singer. The album opens with "Life in Technicolor", an instrumental that expertly combines pop and Krautrock before adding a wordless chorus that is destined to get stadiums of fans pumped. Sure it still sounds like Coldplay, but this 2 minute burst is more exciting than anything I’ve ever heard from the band. It only gets better from here as the funky, upbeat "Cemeteries of London" comes in. Chris sings in a lower register for this one, making it all the more indistinguishable from the soft piano anthems we are used to. "Lost!" is a foot stomping number a la “We Are The Champions.” However, the lyrics are fairly dark, marking an interesting juxtaposition that will continue for the rest of the album.
"42" is the first track that harks back to the piano-driven numbers of yore, but this one has some killer lyrics. Dealing with how the dead linger in the thoughts of the living, it is the first Coldplay song to actually be
beautiful rather than just act like it with soft melodies. All of a sudden Will comes in with a steady groove under some strings. Whoa, now the whole band wants to sound like Radiohead instead of just Chris? Oh dear, who cares, this is magnificent. "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love" has Chris going back to his falsetto, but for some reason it’s much more enjoyable in this song and loses its usually whiny tone. The rocking “Lovers” lead into the softer “Reign of Love,” which once again improves upon their usual piano rock. But this lush ballad cannot compare to the next track, "Yes". A cunning use of strings and wonderful vocals from Martin makes this darker number a killer, and the subsequent hidden track matches the verbal bitterness of “Yes” with some angry, U2-esque guitar over airy vocalizing from Martin.
"Viva La Vida" brings the energy and fun back up with some clever lyrics about Chris musing over the consequences of being a king. A little pretentious perhaps, but it’s a near-perfect pop track and probably the closest thing people have to a Coldplay single on the album. The ambient introduction and soft piano of "Violet Hill" soon gives way to a downright strutter of a number. Who knew Johnny could lay down actual riffs? "Strawberry Swing" is the first let down of the album, and even it is great. The problem is that it’s a bit too light for this album’s dark tone, yet it has a certain rhythm about it that sticks in your head the best possible way. The album closes up with the second title track, another perfect piano piece that slowly morphs into a full band number before the synth outro of "The Escapist" brings the album to a close.
Wow. Who would have expected this album from Coldplay? Neither fan nor critic could have foreseen such a big change, and yet it still retains enough of the old characteristics to sound like a Coldplay album. Now, I’ve always viewed Coldplay as sort of the Dane Cook of the pop world; they come off as fakes and they openly steal from better acts yet are for some reason adored and for some reason shift millions of units. But here, they at least steal from enough sources to sound varied, and they finally embody all the aspects they had previously faked: the sensitive and gifted songwriter, the assured rock stars, the emotional ballads. While Viva La Vida is not a masterpiece, it represents an exciting new direction for the band and hopefully one they explore further. One of the highlights of 2008.