Coldplay describes their musical style as "very heavy soft rock." A peculiar description, although I suppose the band has earned the right to define themselves that way after selling upwards of 32 million albums since their acclaimed debut, Parachutes, was released in 2000. In less than a decade since songs like "Yellow" and "Trouble" first put them on the map, Coldplay has gone from obscure students at University College London with band names such as Starfish and Pectoralz to become one of the most recognizable acts in mainstream music. Their fourth album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, was released last week in the U.S. amid all kinds of hype, having already opened at #1 in 10 other countries from Norway to Korea.
While commercial expectations are very high for Viva La Vida, the English foursome (comprised of frontman Chris Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bass player Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion) has also set a lofty bar musically with their past work. The quiet, folksy Parachutes was considered an innovative post-alternative rock record and even made it onto several "top British albums of all time" lists. Acoustic piano became a suddenly trendy rock star accessory again.
The band's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head perfected Coldplay's signature ambient sound and was thought by most critics to be an even more brilliant achievement than its predecessor, winning a place on several prestigious "greatest albums of all time" lists including those put out by Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four Grammy's and a massive world tour later, Coldplay was being hailed as the second coming of U2 with fans eagerly preparing for the 2005 release of the group's third album, X&Y. Even though it sold over 10 million copies, X&Y was more of a play-it-safe B+ than the third straight A+ album people had come to expect. The first single, "Speed of Sound", was a bit too similar to "Clocks" and some feared that Coldplay was a one-trick pony that had run its course. The post-Rush of Blood comparisons to U2 now appeared premature and the group's window of influence as postmodern soft rock pioneers seemed to be slowly closing. It was time for a new direction. It was time for Viva La Vida.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly leading up to its release, Martin said, "We're slightly terrified about this record, because we've thrown away all our tricks. The truth is, we tried to find new ones." After enthusiastically purchasing and listening Viva La Vida (Spanish for "long live life" or "live the life"), I can't say they've thrown away all their tricks, but they've definitely discovered some clever new ones. Between the 10 tracks, there's more experimentation and musical variety than on any previous project. The results are delicious. Listening to the entire album from start to finish is a scrumptious feast for the ears; familiar and unexpected at the same time. The intro to "Yes" made me think of late OK Computer-era Radiohead, while parts of "Violet Hill" reminded me of Queen. As a U2 fan, I couldn't help but think of how "Lovers in Tokyo" sounds like a cross between "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "City of Blinding Lights." In other words, it's a catchy arena anthem that will be a staple at Coldplay shows for years to come.
Lyrically, there are plenty of new complexities and metaphors open to interpretation. As the album's title suggests, themes of life and death are recurrent throughout. In addition to being at their imaginative best, this might also be their most spiritual album so far. The fact that some of the songs were recorded in churches in Spain and Latin America may have contributed to the religious and supernatural imagery that is prevalent on many of the songs including "Violet Hill" (Priests clutched onto bibles · Hollowed out to fit their rifles · And the cross was held aloft), "Cemeteries of London" (I see God come in my garden · But I don’t know what he said · For my heart it wasn’t open), "42" (You thought you might be a ghost · You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close), Death and All His Friends (No, I don't wanna battle from beginning to end · I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge · I don't wanna follow Death and all his friends) and the title track (I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing · Roman cavalry choirs are singing · Be my mirror, my sword, and shield · My missionaries in a foreign field).
Viva La Vida is simply a stellar concept album with no wasted 'filler' songs. Vibrant and fearless, it's far superior to X&Y, which at times tried to squeeze too much out of the good thing that was A Rush of Blood to the Head, a landmark record that could forever be seen as Coldplay's definitive work akin to U2's The Joshua Tree. True to what they do best, this new release is still very Coldplay-ish; layered and colorful, introspective without being narcissistic. Although Viva La Vida is still characterized by the band's unmistakable sound, nothing about it makes me say "This idea has already been done better" the way that "What If" and "Talk" from X&Y did. (To clarify, I still love X&Y, particularly "The Hardest Part" and "Fix You." It just wasn't a 5-star album.)
With their latest effort, the Coldplay gents remain loyal to themselves, just not as predictable. There are still plenty of short, melodic guitar riffs and echo-laden synth backdrops. You'll still hear Chris Martin floating his falsetto while padding piano chords from time to time, but not as the bread and butter modus operandi any more. Instead, Martin explores a much lower register vocally which proves to be just as haunting, if not more so. The crown jewel of this project is "Violet Hill", which strikes the best balance of emotional ebb and flow the band is known for pulling off so well.
So how does Viva stack up against Coldplay's better work from Rush of Blood and Parachutes? Very well, I think. While it remains to be seen how these songs will define the band over the long term, my initial impression is that their new direction is an outstanding leap forward. Fresh musical and lyrical avenues are playfully explored with refreshing optimism. The effect is 45 minutes and 53 seconds of beauty that far exceeded even this fan's expectations. Coldplay is growing up and so is their expanding audience. It looks like they've found a few new tricks.