Sorry about the title, I couldn’t help it. I think it’s rather humorous.
To the delight/lament of music fans everywhere, Coldplay released their 4th album this week, with the Ricky Martin-inspired title, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
Maybe it was just me keeping myself less exposed to it, but it seemed like there was not nearly as much hype and build-up as there was for their previous album, X&Y. I count that as a good thing. X&Y was doomed from the beginning by all the ridiculous hype and expectations. (I do think they definitely took a few steps forward on that album though.)
When they released their first single from Viva La Vida, “Violet Hill,” it was pretty obvious they were going in a different direction, much of which can be attributed to first-time Coldplay producer, Brian Eno. There was a darker tone to the music along with some added depth. And a guitar solo. I was going to be pretty excited about the album regardless, but “Violet Hill” really drove up expectations.
I listened to the entire album online a few weeks ago when the band released it for streaming, so I’ve been able to enjoy it for some time already.
And man…it is a great listen.
All right, on with the review. This will go like the post for Radiohead’s “In Rainbows.” I’ll list the title of each track and my favorite part of each song, with a blurb of thoughts for each. Then I’ll give some wrap-up thoughts on the album as a whole afterwords.
1. “Life in Technicolor” – I guess my favorite part would be when the drums kick in at 2:22. This track is just an ambient instrumental that puts the album in motion. But even from that, you can tell their sound, along with how they construct a song has taken a giant step forward. It’s much more of an organic approach rather than the sort of piece-by-piece, block-by-block type of construction they’ve used before.
2. “Cemeteries of London” – The “La la la la la la layyy” parts that remind me of a bunch of half-dead pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean singing along with the band. Martin said the song was inspired by historical witch burnings and drownings in London. The lyrics and music evoke a dark, spooky feel with some moral ambiguity/confusion thrown in.
3. “Lost!” – The pounding rhythm, which incorporates hand claps. (I liked the handclaps in “Cemeteries” more though.) The band has said they’ve been drawn to hip-hop lately — specifically the tight, focused production that forms such a huge basis for that genre. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than on “Lost.” You almost expect Chris Martin to start rapping after the first few seconds.
4. “42” – My love for multi-part songs is not really a secret. And this is a Coldplay multi-part song! I like the opening line of the lyrics. The best part for me by far is when the guitar/strings combo comes in at 1:48, along with most of the second section of the song. The third section is nice too. Bassist Guy Berryman explains it was their attempt at a “Paranoid Android”, “Bohemian Rhapsody” or an “Abbey Road” type of sprawling song structure. And I love it. One of my favorite tracks.
5. “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love”
- “Lovers in Japan” – The underlying rhythm/piano. It feels like a “standard” Coldplay song but, like just about every song in the album, it shows the giant leap the band has taken in their sound and craft. Every aspect is polished and heightened.
- “Reign of Love” – Reminded me of the short, simple, all-acoustic “Parachutes” diddy found on their debut. And again, it shows how far they’ve come.
6. “Yes / Chinese Sleep Chant”
- “Yes” – The highlight would be Chris Martin’s voice, which is not in that damn-earnest falsetto of his that can get a little tiring. It’s a nice change.
- “Chinese Sleep Chant” – The music refracting and echoing out in all directions, with Martin’s voice being submerged beneath everything. Feels like a clear homage to My Bloody Valentine. Will Champion, the drummer, didn’t like this song at all so it almost didn’t make it on the album.
7. “Viva La Vida” – The violins that form such a huge part of the song. I especially like the section that starts off the second verse, at 1:53. Martin has stated that this song was reflecting on the end of a “reign” and the last moments before someone loses power (or presidency). But I think that’s just the band trying to be political. The song is a lot bigger than just another hackneyed jab at the President. I like to look at it as “The Post-Postmodern Anthem.” If Nietzche’s “God is dead” ushered in the funeral procession that is/was postmodernism, this song could very well serve as the eulogy.
8. “Violet Hill” – The 40 second reverb that starts the song. Nah…it’s the guitar solo, of course. It’s not fantastic by any means, but hey, it’s a guitar solo. Jonny Buckland, the guitarist, is featured heavily. In fact, Martin describes the song as Buckland “just being like a guitar hero.” Unlike “Viva La Vida,” this song is clearly political. And if any one song can show the shift in style and sound of the band, it is this song. I guess that’s why it was the first single.
9. “Strawberry Swing” – The guitar that serves as the foundation throughout. This song steers the album towards some hope and begins the closing of the album. For all the depths and the darkness the album reaches (well, as dark as Coldplay can get), the ending of the album, which starts with this song, leaves you smiling and uplifted. You really can’t help it. You can resist all you want but yeah…you’ll be smiling by the end.
10. “Death and All His Friends / The Escapist”
- “Death and All His Friends” – I love it when the song comes to life at 1:50. This song just ends the album in the perfect, uplifting, trademark Coldplay soaring lyrics/music.
- “The Escapist” bookends the album nicely with the first song, offering a coda of an ending that ties it back to the first track. I think I said the same thing about the last track on Radiohead’s album. I like it when an album is made as one whole, unified work. It’s becoming increasingly rare in this age of iTunes singles.
[Note: I don’t see why they had to do the whole double-song thing at all. Separate tracks would’ve been better for both listening and reviewing purposes. For all purposes actually. But I’ll let it slide.]
First of all, this is unmistakably a Coldplay album. There is the natural progression any worthwhile band goes through (which I’m assuming the “song / another song” thing is), but the basic blueprint is similar: the buildup, the soaring choruses, the impeccable, polished melody, even the overly-earnest singing aimed right at your heart. But there is also more than a natural progression of a band. It’s so many miles beyond what they’ve done before. They’ve learned some more tricks and their old tricks are done better.
I don’t mean to get all music critic-y, but the stand-out part of this album is the “sonic landscape.” Really, there is a texture to the music and you get the definite feeling that each song is built with layer upon layer delicately placed together. (Note: I had no idea Eno’s credit on the album sleeve reads “Sonic landscapes by Brian Eno.” So that’s what he did.)
Sure, there were layers on their albums before (see: “Daylight,” “White Shadows,” “High Speed”) but when compared to this album, those previous “layers” feel more like stacks. Carefully placed and pored-over stacks, but still stacks nonetheless. I attribute a huge bit of credit for this to producer Brian Eno. I don’t know what exactly Eno did, but there’s no doubt part of it was getting the band to add texture, layer, and substance to a song without putting any unnecessary weight in it — streamlining their sound as much as possible while adding complexity at the same time. More moving parts, less fat.
Taking the biggest single from each album shows how far they’ve come. First it was “Yellow,” then “In My Place,” then “Fix You.” And now “Viva La Vida.” While those other songs are very good, “Viva La Vida” is simply on another level. Just listen to those songs in a row. You’ll see.
The subject matter and lyrics also show a progression. Their debut, Parachutes, was about unrequited love and the loss/regaining of innocence and hope. A Rush of Blood to the Head was a much more spiritual album that explored themes of purpose, meaning, and significance. X&Y seemed torn between exploring the deeper issues touched upon by A Rush of Blood and going back to the love themes of Parachutes.
Viva La Vida puts an end to much of the navel-gazing that characterized their previous albums and attempts to take a bigger perspective with its themes. I suppose they are still the same familiar themes of love, meaning, purpose, etc, but really…what better themes are there to sing about? This is a rather heavy, darker album as a whole I guess. But the point is that in Viva La Vida, the band is able to place all those emotions of angst, hope, frustration, and joy, outwards into a more universal framework.
Like I said in the beginning, their previous album, X&Y, had the potential to be great. But it was weighed down by the enormous amount of pressure. Coldplay is a band that has always wanted to please everyone…to a fault. And that was entirely too evident in X&Y. In that album, you can see a band wanting so badly to break free and really start coming into their own. They took so many steps forward on that album, but perhaps it was fear, insecurity, or pressure from the record label — or maybe all three — but for every step forward, it was matched with an equal step backwards to familiar, “tried and true” sounds.
With Viva La Vida, the band seems to have learned how to deal with the enormity of their success and the pressure that comes with it; they are able to say “The hell with it, we’re going to make our music whether you like it or not.”
But of course, this is Coldplay. Their endearing earnestness is part of their appeal. They do indeed wholeheartedly prefer that you like their music and that comes through loud and clear. And…I kind of enjoy that. It is why you won’t see them cutting their talent short by making albums like Amnesiac. (Don’t worry Radiohead, I’ve already forgiven you guys.) And I guess that is also why you won’t see them making an album as amazing as OK Computer. But I could live with that.
Viva La Vida is what A Rush of Blood to the Head was pointing towards and X&Y was supposed to be, but only gave a glimpse of. This is the Coldplay album we’ve been waiting for.
I’m going to say it right now, and I might get some flaming for this…but if Radiohead hadn’t made In Rainbows, Coldplay very well could’ve been my favorite band of today.
Yes kids, it is now officially okay, maybe even cool, to like Coldplay.
Songs of the Day:
You can buy the album for 10 bucks at Amazon. It’s well worth the money.