Coldplay: “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”
More than almost any other act in 2008, Coldplay isn’t really a band so much as a brand– or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. It’s not their craft, or even their songs, that gets them the most attention, but their comforting reliability, the fact that, for three albums straight, they’ve traded in the warm, enveloping sounds of Chris Martin’s well-mannered piano recitals and choirboy falsetto, with ballads in search of a romantic comedy soundtrack in which to nestle and anthems in search of an arena to fill. Their epic sense of scope makes them sound like they’re perpetually auditioning for the role of Biggest Band in the World, while their politeness means that they’re never willing to mess with their formula enough to win the gig.
It’s not an enviable position; chart success has never eluded them, but critical goodwill gradually dwindles, and even the band seems to know that they can’t fall back on formula forever, even if formula is the very thing that makes them so successful; their latest, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, has been hyped by some as their creative breakthrough– a much-needed reinvention– while others have complained that it’s not nearly enough of a transformation to really matter.
And to be sure, it’s a modest transformation, but, for Coldplay, that might just be the best kind; it’s an album that shakes things up enough to make their music interesting again– it’s their first consistently engaging album since their debut– but it doesn’t abandon the sense of warmth and familiarity that has always been their calling card. The general Coldplay sound is unchanged, but the particulars of the individual songs are retooled just enough to make the album feel like a step forward. And that, ultimately, is the charm of Viva la Vida— it doesn’t find them abandoning their too-familiar sound, but, rather, it finds them honing their craft to the point that they actually redeem their too-familiar sound, proving that, with a little focus and a renewed zeal for craft, their indeliable brand of feel-good euphoria can amount to something much more than just U2-lite.
Ironically, they had to bring in a familiar U2 collaborator– producer Brian Eno– to pull it off, but their creative collaboration is inspired; Eno lets Coldplay be Coldplay while prodding them to experiment with their familiar sound in ways that broaden and expand it without changing what lies at its core. He helps them to focus, but also to broaden their horizons, not in an indulgent way, but in a graceful one– and so, at 47 minutes, this is much shorter than either of their previous two albums, but it’s also more gripping and engaging, and it covers more ground. It still sounds like Coldplay, but a much better Coldplay– a Coldplay that can rely on strong melodies and sleek, elegant production to achieve their stadium-shaking euphoria, without ever resorting to Martin’s piano recitals or falsetto singing, and with fewer Edge-styled guitar riffs than ever before. Eno guides the band to replace those familiar elements with new ones– some exotic Asian instrumentation, songs that stretch out well beyond conventional pop radio lengths, departures from the traditional verse-chorus structure, and some moments that rock harder than anything Coldplay has ever cut– all the while retaining their warmth, their earnestness, and their sense of grandeur.
Because the spotlight is less on Martin than ever, it feels more like a band record than anything they’ve done since Parachutes, and it’s also their first album since then in which the focus is on their craft rather than on their image. And yet, another of the album’s ironies is that much of its success comes from Martin’s growth as a songwriter. Now that he doesn’t feel obliged to impress us with his earnest balladry and his aww-shucks persona, he allows himself to turn in some of his most concise, tight pop songs yet, as well as some of his most sprawling and ambitious. He writes in character sometimes, and he’s branched into territory beyond the usual relationship drama and paranoia, and he’s writing conceptually, too: Viva la Vida is an album filled with death, war, violence, and religion– God is mentioned on multiple songs– but it’s never morbid or morose, partly because that would be totally alien to Coldplay, but partly because Martin has developed so much as an artist, bringing together strands of love songs and protest songs and spiritual songs into a record that maintains a reflective mood without ever giving way to an excess of melancholy.
Some will complain that, for all its changes, this record still sounds just like a Coldplay album– and indeed it does, but that’s what makes it a success. Eno challenges the band to make their sound interesting and compelling in new ways without abandoning it altogether, allowing their to maintain their identity as a band while expanding their palette of sounds and colors. It’s like the new version of a car– the engine’s still the same, but it’s fresher and more exciting, more comfortable and efficient. It doesn’t abandon the Coldplay sound, it does something better– it makes us believe that the Coldplay sound didn’t really need abandoning after all.