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.