Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

(Capitol; 2008)

By David M. Goldstein | 19 June 2008

Not bad, Coldplay. Congratulations on not fucking this one up. While your new record isn’t exactly going to convert any of the elitist folk that hated on your first two (good) albums, lordy is it better than X&Y (2005), and it even proves you (or at least your frontman) to be far more self-aware than I ever gave you credit for. Writing the seventeenth version of “Clocks” would relegate your legacy to that of “glorified singles band that wrote ‘Clocks’,” so ditching your longtime producer for the legendary one with the crossword clue last name was a good idea. You stand to benefit from instant credibility and a fresh set of ears in the studio, and the listener benefits because a penchant for filling out tracks with peripheral haze and layers upon layers of sound renders it far easier to ignore your singer’s, uh, “lyrics.”

Chris Martin stated in a recent Rolling Stone interview that the pairing of his band with Brian Eno was the result of the latter sheepishly stating that he thought he just might be able to do a decent job, a recollection of which I’m not exactly buying into. Fact is, Eno and Coldplay is a record executive’s wet dream, a pairing on the obvious level of Oreos and milk. Coldplay have never shied away from drafting populist epics and if the man on the street is going to buy ten albums in his lifetime, odds are of one of these is going to be The Joshua Tree (1987). Guitarist Johnny Buckland in particular seems like he can hardly believe his luck, and he rightfully treats the whole of Viva la Vida like an Edge-worship fantasy camp, littering each track with those shimmering, aching peals of guitar that only the U2 guitarist can do as well. Working directly with Eno seems to have liberated the guy—he no longer has to apologize for loooving himself some Dave Evans (and should Coldplay ever have the sack to cover “In God’s Country,” it would completely kill).

Despite Martin’s insistence that Eno forced the band to work with unconventional song structures and claimed that his lyrics “were not good enough,” there’s very little here that wouldn’t come off as a run-of-the-mill Coldplay song in lesser hands. Brian Eno’s most significant contribution would seem to be his ability to tweak, as opposed to overhaul, and the lyrics are still laughable, unless one considers “Just because I’m losing / Doesn’t mean I’m lost” profound.

But Eno is the Bergdorf-Goodman of window-dressing, and “Lost!,” the song from which that couplet is taken, is arguably Viva‘s best track and one of Coldplay’s strongest sonic achievements to date. Eno somehow wrings a mountain of existential angst out of “You might be a big fish / In a small pond / Doesn’t mean you’ve won” by imbuing it with a clattering percussion march and canyon-deep church organ haze to supplement Buckland’s rays of reverberating light at the chorus. The video will likely have a lot of sand, the stage show will feature lots of fog (and lasers!), and even Bono himself will be impressed at Chris Martin’s ability to so encapsulate the former’s late ’80s wandering, mystic phase. Likewise for the excellent “Strawberry Swing,” a hazy, not quite Afro-pop, not quite Japanese folk ditty that suggests the secret to Vampire Weekend’s career longevity could be Eno’s phone # in their Blackberry.

While it’s difficult to gauge how much influence Eno had on Coldplay’s actual songwriting process, aside from making them sound pretty, Martin & Co. simply sound far less lazy this time out. The first song proper is a galloping sea shanty in 6/8, and they’ve even taken to ripping off bands other (and better) than U2. There’s more than a little of Arcade Fire’s forward propulsion at the apex of “42” (not for nothing that Fire engineer Markus Dravs was also on board) and the “Chinese Sleep Chant” portion of “Yes” is a wholesale My Bloody Valentine rip, but if Buckland decides he wants to be Kevin Shields for two minutes, I’m not about to complain. A few tracks suggest that the tail may be wagging the dog a bit too much, like “Life in Technicolor,” the shimmery album opening instrumental which serves minimal purpose aside from setting up a reprise at record’s end and clearly announcing that E-to-the-N-O is most definitely in the hizzouse. Then there’s the iPod commercial title track, which while unquestionably catchy, is little more than Chris Martin emoting over a synth orchestra with the rest of his band nowhere to be found.

The debate over Martin’s lyrical prowess, or lack thereof, will remain. Though yours truly has gone on record as being the CMG scribe least concerned with the quality of the written word, it would be difficult for anybody not to cringe at “Soldiers / You’ve got to soldier on / Sometimes even the right is wrong” (“Lovers in Japan”) or “Those who are dead / Are not dead / They’re just living in my head” (“42,” and that’s deep, brah). But for those already on board with Coldplay’s earlier efforts, the lyrics are really no better or worse than anything Martin’s written in the past and, unlike on X&Y, this time the surrounding music is worthy enough to bail him out. Plus, the one word that keeps popping into my head to describe Viva La Vida would be “effort.” Coldplay finally seems like a band wise enough to take a step back, listen to critics, and fashion a record that while still sounding very much like the blokes responsible for “Yellow” is surprisingly fresh. Viva is also bereft of the one or two (in the case of X&Y, eight) blatant filler tracks that clog up Coldplay albums (e.g. “A Whisper,” “We Never Change”). Nothing here quite achieves the heights of “Lost!,” but there’re no obvious skips either.

To the point, I consider myself a Coldplay fan who really liked their first two albums. X&Y was an alarmingly dull third album that I listened to out of obligation. I’ve already listened to Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends more times in the past two weeks than I’ve listened to X&Y in the past three years. And for god’s sake, that truly means something; I was seriously bummed when my attempt at scoring tickets to next week’s free Madison Square Garden gig proved fruitless.

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