Review Summary: Well. This is a surprise.
Give Coldplay credit for their guts. After their last album, the so-inoffensive-it-hurt X&Y
, Coldplay could have taken the safe route by continuing to make heart-warming ballads and spaced out piano rock which would easily accumulate lots of cash regardless of the music’s actual worth and listeners would have been just fine with that. Indifferent, maybe, but just fine nonetheless.
But then we wouldn’t have Viva La Vida
Rolling Stone categorized X&Y as “the sound of a blown up band not trying to deflate.” If that’s the case, then Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends
, the fourth studio album from the London quartet, is the sound of a blown up band not giving a fuc
k. As the title suggests, Viva La Vida
is a positively celebratory collection of songs seeping in melodies, hooks, and emotion. It’s a tour de force, showing Coldplay stripping themselves of the self-imposed chains that held back X&Y
. There’s something blissfully carefree in this record’s ten tracks, as in the shuffle beat of “Lovers in Japan” or the folk-pop stylings of “Strawberry Swing.” Coldplay sounds like they’re just having fun
. Even as Chris Martin deals his darkest, angriest lyrics yet (Angry is a strong term. Perhaps a better one is mildly miffed), Viva La Vida
shows Coldplay taking risks that the general public never suspected they would ever take, and having a ball doing it. The result is easily Coldplay’s best album to date, a record filled with exuberance, charm, and the heart they’ve been feigning for years.
Now, as much as they’ve progressed musically, it’s impossible to deny that Viva La Vida
is still a “Coldplay” record. Yes, it’s still extremely piano driven and yes, Chris Martin is still singing. But the difference between this record and previous Coldplay albums is that all the songs are actually good
. There are no missteps in the duration of Viva La Vida
, just ten ace tunes (thirteen when counting the three split-tracks on the album). Perhaps this stems from Brian Eno’s handiwork or the eyebrow-raising “Spanish influence” Martin spoke of during the album’s recording sessions, but most likely the record’s quality comes from the fact that Coldplay just refuses to stop moving. The self-described “very heavy soft rock band” delivers Viva La Vida
as a straight-up rock album, and its drive propels the record past typical Coldplay issues. Ballads are conspicuously absent here (there’s no song for Chris Martin to walk in slow motion to) and thus Coldplay avoids the snag that dragged down their previous efforts. Instead, the listener is treated to tracks like “Cemeteries of London”, a driving waltz of a tune that sticks gloriously in a minor key. It plays out with a soaring gang chorus and hand claps to underlie the tension of Martin’s lyrics (“God is in the houses, God is in my head”
As the second track on the album, “Cemeteries of London” exudes tons of promise for Viva La Vida
, a promise only delivered by tracks like “Violet Hill” and “42” (which features a Jonny Greenwood-esque guitar freakout performed by Jonny Buckland. Finally, a Radiohead comparison that makes sense). Like “Cemeteries of London,” both tracks are dark rock tunes that move with tangible swagger and an attitude that Coldplay until now had faked. “Violet Hill” in particular struts confidently, decked out with both a stomping beat and pounding keyboards, allowing Martin to dispose of his usual niceties to deliver the single’s hook ”If you loved me, why’d you let me go?”
Martin has never sounded more confident than he has on Viva La Vida
, showing off his immense vocal range, flipping from the ecstatic upper reaches of “Life in Technicolor” and “Viva La Vida” to the eerily seductive baritone of “Yes.” It’s positively delightful to hear Martin have some breadth of emotion in his lyrics, as topics range from accusatory (“When the future's architectured by a carnival of idiots on show you'd better lie low”
) to introspective (”No I don’t want a battle from beginning to end, I don’t wanna cycle/ recycle revenge, I don’t wanna follow death and all of his friends”
) to a sort of sneering triumph ("You thought you might be a ghost. You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close”
). It sounds as though Martin is finally using the style and grace God gave him, and Viva La Vida
is all the better for it.
Still, despite Martin delivering his best vocal performance to date, the most appealing aspect of Viva La Vida
is that Coldplay finally sounds like an actual band. Viva La Vida
doesn’t sound like a Chris Martin album with back-up musicians. There’s proof in Viva La Vida
that Coldplay is actually talented
. Who knew drummer Will Champion was so vital a force within Coldplay’s sound? Credit the production skills of Brian Eno or credit Martin’s ego shrinking enough to highlight his band mates, but Viva La Vida
could be a pinnacle for Coldplay. Sure, it’s more or less a “Coldplay record,” but there’s so much more to Viva La Vida
that makes it worthwhile. There’s chemistry, attitude, and something resembling surprise, all three of which were elements ignored by the obvious and predictable nature of Coldplay’s past. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends
takes a band that ostensibly was in decline, a sound that’s been tried and true, and makes it all sound fantastically fresh.