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Music Review: Coldplay – Viva La Vida (or Death And All His Friends)

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I think the first time I really became aware of the band Coldplay was with the song "Clocks."

I was vaguely aware of who they were before that, of course. The song "Yellow" from the band's debut album Parachutes was one of those cloying, annoying sort of songs that once heard, you just couldn't get it out of your head. This at the time was not a good thing at all as far as I was concerned.

On the other hand, how on earth could you deny a song like "Clocks"?

I had no idea whatsoever what all the words about "shoot an arrow through my head" and "a tigers trying to be tamed" actually meant (insert your favorite over-analytical music critic joke here). But with that ridiculously catchy piano riff, I also didn't really care. Add to that the sort of irresistible bass line that Chris Squire himself would be proud to call his own, and I was all but sold.

Whiny Chris Martin falsetto vocals aside, I decided right then and there that Coldplay was for real.

And while were on the subject of those whiny vocals, let's address that right here and now. Because like it or not, they were always there, okay? If Chris Martin, as both a singer and songwriter, is a guy who is somewhat, okay, in touch with his more "feminine side" in some of Coldplay's songs, so be it. It's not exactly like this is some sort of brand new revelation.

Yet somewhere in between the band's second (and still best) record, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, and right before they legitimately became one of the biggest bands on the planet with 2005's X&Y, everybody seemed to realize this — and simultaneously recoil from it in horror — all at once. This is about the point where the jokes took hold about fans admitting to liking Coldplay being either female, gay, or maybe even both.

My personal theory on that resulting backlash is that it had as much to do with the fact that Coldplay got enormously big rather quickly, as it did with the criticisms most often leveled at the band. Legitimate as many of those may be — including the aforementioned whiny vocals, and the often overblown (and overwrought) arena rock production of X&Y — it's not like any of these minor annoyances were things we didn't already know.

I mean, correct me if I'm wrong here.

Even so, I'm sure none of this went unnoticed by the band themselves. To that effect, the just released Viva La Vida (or Death And All His Friends) seems to be Coldplay's attempt to fend off said backlash, and regain back some of their original critical mettle.

Not that Viva La Vida isn't without its fair share of pretensions. There's that damn title for starters. Add to that the fact, that retaining a producer like Brian Eno practically guarantees comparisons to U2, as Eno's very name conjures visions of the atmospheric soundscapes of Joshua Tree and the like.

Still, for the most part I think this album works. And at times, it works amazingly well.

Not that there aren't a few problems. Coldplay were already a band that really didn't do a lot to hide their U2 influences. With the guy behind both The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree twisting the knobs, it was pretty much inevitable that some of those influences were going to creep into the mix.

Which they do, and right from the get-go I might add.

Take the opening instrumental track "Life In Technicolor," for example. As the swirling synthesizers and creeping sound of that chink-a-chinking guitar slowly bubble up to the surface, you almost expect the familiar lyrics "I want to run…I wanna hide" to bust through the mix at any moment.

Likewise on "Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love," all of the piano in the world can't hide the trademark Eno layering, and the Edge-like chiming guitars lying just beneath the songs surface. For the second half of the song (there is after all a dual title here), they switch things up to what at first also sounds suspiciously like something straight out of "With or Without You" territory.

The thing is though, much as it sounds like Coldplay are trying to beat U2 at their own game here, I'll be go to hell if it all doesn't sound pretty damn gorgeous just the same.
I also have to give these guys their props for breaking out of their comfort zone somewhat here. As familiar as much of this will sound to anyone who has worn out multiple copies of The Joshua Tree, at least it represents some new musical territory for Coldplay. The fact is, in strictly musical terms, they are stretching out here.

Viva La Vida is definitely not the paint by numbers, verse, chorus, verse record you'd normally expect from this band.

On one of the most interesting tracks, "Yes," Chris Martin sings the lyrics in an uncharacteristically low register (no whiny falsettos here), as eastern sounding instrumentation swirls about in the background. Then just as quickly, the song shifts to the sort of multi-layered, psychedelic guitar sound that wouldn't be at all out of place on a Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles record.

This part of the song also really rocks by the way. And just when was the last time you heard somebody say that about a Coldplay record?

From there, fans of the more familiar romantic Coldplay sound will be able to take some solace in both the title track and the single "Violet Hill," which despite its slightly harder sound just hit #1 on Billboard's singles charts.

So as much as Viva La Vida sounds at times both like a band trying to reinvent itself after recently being stung by the critics, and at others like they are worshipping just a bit too much at the altar of U2, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt here.

At least they're not trying to sound like Radiohead anymore.

The bottom line is that this is a damned good sounding record.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    On the other hand, how on earth could you deny a song like “Clocks”?

    it’s really easy. i start with a cringe and then just go from there.

    ok, not quite truthful. i do like “Clocks”…it’s just everything else they do that i can’t stand.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/eric_whelchel Eric Whelchel

    When someone who has turned me on to many great bands over the years gave me Coldplay’s first album and told me I’d love it, I thought he was nuts after giving it a few listens. I haven’t recovered from that moment yet.

  • Jordan Richardson

    So excited to get this.

    My first Coldplay experience was actually seeing them at the Commodore Ballroom here in Vancouver as they were promoting Parachutes. Small…TINY…show with maybe a thousand people packed on to the Ballroom’s legendary bouncy floor and Martin was going mad as though he was playing for tens of thousands. Bloody amazing show and I’ve been a fan ever since.

    Seemingly a few seconds later they were playing packed arena shows.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    Aside from “The Scientist” (and, really, more due to Aimee Mann’s cover of it on her deluxe version of Lost In Space,) I haven’t really taken to much of anything Coldplay did in the past. I have to admit that I’m quite taken with this album and I would never have expected it. I blame it on Eno.

    And James is surely the inspiration for the “Lovers in Japan” portion of that two-part track – every bit of that is pure James, the shuffling beat, the romping piano, and Martin’s phrasing is exactly like Tim Booth’s. All it needs is some trumpet.

    That’s my issue with this band – I’m not convinced I’m listening to Coldplay, I’m still feel like I’m listening “Coldplay Takes On The Classics.” But they do it really well, and this time they’ve actually made a really, really interesting album that I can actually play again and again and not get bored of. But is that Coldplay at work or Eno? I suspect it’s Eno, unfortunately, but only time will tell – if they opt to not work with Eno in the future. U2 has proven they can turn out great stuff without Eno, James has proven they can turn out great stuff without Eno. Let’s see Coldplay prove it. I’m actually rooting for them.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    According to whom, Glen? :P

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Well, according to me I suppose.

    -Glen

  • Ross

    When did reviewers stop listening to the music? It makres you wonder when you read what people say about Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. There are so many comments on titles, geeky Chris Martin and derivatives I found myself thinking I was reading a financial report. I thought this was about “popular music”? If so surely the important thing is whether you enjoyed the experience of listening to the music and whether it created an emotional response. Thats why I listen to music…what about the rest of the general public? Incidentally This is the best music and lyrics Coldplay have written!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I agree that this album is Coldplay’s best work so far. There isn’t a track I don’t love, and there are very few records one can say that about.

    The music is complex without being gratingly experimental. One needs to fire up a few brain cells in order to appreciate it, which is a good sign that it won’t be getting stale any time soon. (Always a problem for me with songs I initially love and then get bored with after a few listens.)

    As Glen noted, the band took a risk going outside their comfort zone, and it’s paid off.

    Looking forward to seeing them live in San Jose in a couple of weeks.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Ross,

    I did in fact listen to the Coldplay CD (many, many times in fact), although I’m not so sure you read my entire review.

    If you did, you’d see that in fact I liked this CD quite a bit. While the U2/Eno comparisons should be obvious to anyone listening, I still am quite happy to otherwise see Martin and company branching out, and otherwise breaking out of the mold that made them stars.

    But then, you’d know that if you read the review…

    -Glen

  • Ross

    Glen,

    I wasn’t just commenting on your review and I did read it all. I had read many reviews before I got to yours. I think your review was fair and interesting but your ‘faint praise’ is nearly as bad no praise at all.

    I think the album is so good I want to encourage people to listen to it, not put them off. Personally I don’t think their latest effort sounds at all like U2…though I confess their earlier albums did and X & Y was ordinary. In the end it doesn’t matter to me who they may sound like, as long I get pleasure from listening to it and its not an obvious take off.