Coldplay are more or less successful, if a bit disjointed, in their attempt to forge a new sound in the face of their massive popularity. The London band is one of the most famous in today’s contemporary music scene, let alone alternative rock, having won a slew of Grammies, delivered the best-selling album of 2005 with their last, X&Y (to the point where, when it was delayed, EMI/Capitol’s stock dropped), and featuring one of the most well-known frontmen in Chris Martin (husband of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, father to the famously oddly-named Apple and Moses). The fame had already begun to wear on them before X&Y (thus the delay), and the four-piece took extra time crafting their latest, with producer Brian Eno. While the shift, away from Martin’s falsetto-led high Brit-rock to a more interesting and fuller sound, isn’t complete or perfectly executed, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is definitely a strong stab forward.
Despite the proclamations of ‘band democracy’ following the troubled recording sessions for their first EMI release in 1999, The Blue Room EP, Coldplay has always been especially associated with Martin, thanks not just to his high profile (including being the sole person in the video for their breakthrough 2000 single, “Yellow”) but the front-and-center status of his high vox (especially on quieter songs), plus his piano taking the lead role on many of their most orchestra pieces. Martin and others have claimed that Viva is a new turn, and there’s definitely more of feeling that this is a ‘whole band’ record – even the cover, the famed La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (‘Liberty Leading the People’) painting, which commemorates how all the classes in France joined together in the July Revolution of 1830, points to this idea.
Viva introduces its notion of change from the get-go with instrumental opener “Life in Technicolor” (and not just because Martin’s pipes are nowhere to be heard), with its high, airy, twinkle-tech start. Even when it goes into a more ‘traditional Coldplay’ expansive anthem, it’s more effective. It also serves very well as lead-in to “Cemeteries of London”, which just might actually be the record’s high point. Grand like the title would imply, the chorus nature still isn’t insufferable in the way critics have disliked X&Y & Coldplay. Latest single “Lost!” is mostly a catchy sing-a-long, but does feature some of the claimed Latin influences in Will Champion’s percussion, and works pretty well.
Unfortunately, the following “42” (first “Lost!”, then one of the ‘numbers’ from the acclaimed TV series, Lost – did Coldplay join the Dharma Initiative?…) starts with a return to the emoting, falsetto Martin, then jarringly changes into a techno-rock part that’s better, but still doesn’t quite fit. And that is a hallmark of the rest of Viva, as it features some really sharp shifts within songs. At least the subsequent “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love” admits to being a two-for-one – the proceeding “Yes” and finisher “Death and All His Friends” don’t note their second halves in their titles (“Chinese Sleep Chart” & “The Escapist”, respectively). “Japan” is nice and bright with well-done keys and strong uplift, while “Reign” is a sweeter, weaker side. “Yes” is maybe the record’s biggest outright shift, a ‘sexy girl who ain’t nothin’ but trouble’ song; Martin’s come-on is a little forced, but there’s a great underlying instrumentation. “Chinese Sleep Chart”, meanwhile, is better put together, but its high epic-ness makes it less of standout. The strongest of all these twofers is likely the finale: “Death” sums up the record as it grows from quiet into grand, while “The Escapist” is a high-tech twinkle reprise of “Technicolor” (ironically enough, the shift from the final track to the first – if the CD is put on repeat – is actually better than that within most tracks, let alone track-to-track…).
Before “Death” comes the more ‘traditional Coldplay’, but even here, new sounds can be heard. Number one single “Viva la Vida” is grand and orchestral (especially in the strings) like what one might expect from the band, but with a more interesting, post-fame, post-backlash outlook (as put once on The Showbiz Show with David Spade: “In: Coldplay! Out: Coldplay…”). First single “Violet Hill” sees more rock inflected into the grand, while “Strawberry String” improves its cute, high nature with neat alt-country echoing guitars.
Despite their massive success, Coldplay has always straddled an odd netherworld: big enough that everybody’s heard of them, but no one claims that they’re their favorite band – yet few (outside music snobs) really hate them, either. The group could have wallowed in this comfortable region of high record sales and Martin’s fame, but instead Coldplay tried the dance of revolution (albeit more of the Glorious than Guillotine kind). All the steps aren’t quite there yet, but the foursome is moving in the right direction.