Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends (2008)

Once again, EMI senior executives’ sanity and salaries hang by a thread. Coldplay announce a new album, take an age to record it, trekking across the world to find inspiration. Rumour had it that this disc would be darker, as they had been listening to metal. Rumour had it that there would be massive Latin influences as they’d been hovering around South America for a while.

As ever, it’s a Coldplay release, and at the end of the day, that means fairly epic soundscapes, acoustic and electric guitars playing lots of jangle, vague lyrics and Chris Martin emoting.  What I didn’t expect was such a variety of sounds, and an almost complete lack of falsetto.

The big synth and organ sounds, the strings, the colourful soundwashes and Eno-esque (now, Eno himself) flourishes are all here, hanging around like a slightly embarrassed friend at a party, but I suppose the band didn’t feel like microscoping their sound back down (maybe the next album will be the ‘back to basics’ record?). Getting The Eno in was a masterstroke: it means someone else can take the blame if it goes wrong, but it won’t, because a) Martin knows his audience and b) Eno is pretty much the most consistent man in the business (along with the likes of Steve Albini and Brendan O’Brien, you know exactly what you’re going to get).

So, to the songs. ‘Life In Technicolour’ certainly is that, but much like a Kid A era Radiohead track, it doesn’t really do anything, although it builds to a nice melange of sounds. Instrumental, and the first time that trick has been used on a Coldplay album, it sets up the album nicely: new, different, but not that different. ‘Cemeteries of London’ and ‘Lost’ both have a rather darker tone than much of X&Y, reminiscient of the more tortured emotions of Rush of Blood era Chris Martin, but fundamentally are Coldplay songs.

It’s with 42 that things get weirder. Soft pianos and a whispered vocal sound pretty run-of-the-mill, even if rather broody, but then, the strings start playing a twisted angular ‘modern’, almost Oriental melody, with a glitchy little beat, electronic bleeps and then, heaven forbid, distorted angular guitar. Jonny Buckland has realised, it seems, that he’s a much better guitarist than he’s been made out to be by his previous appearances for Coldplay. Pity that now, under Eno, he sounds like The Edge. Talk of heaven, ghosts, and possibly we have here a sly reference to Douglas Adams. It’s ending ruins it though, going back to the quiet piano plinking – to have ended abruptly, powerfully and with oomph would have made this an absolutely incredible main set closing kind of song.

‘Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love’ is a song suite, another of those little experiments that pop up across the album. Trite lyrics – ‘soldiers, you must soldier on, sometimes even the right is wrong’ – but Martin has probably used up his best lyrics for a while: can you ever top ‘The Scientist’ or ‘Fix You’? Staccato pianos (possibly harpsichords?) and a martial beat fill up the first half, with those classic synths and mellotrons complementing Chris Martin’s voice. Something I’ve realised listening to this song: Coldplay tend to stick to the same keys or chord progressions, as a lot of the songs have the same and sound.Peaking with some high strings, and then segueing into rippling pianos, the introduction into ‘Reign of Love’, whilst fairly typical, is typically lovely, and an improvement on the first half of the suite. Working well as a coda, as opposed to a standalone song, it’s a nice aural treat, but has no real substance.

‘Yes’, on the other hand, is brilliant. Strings doing that sliding, Oriental thing again, with another of those semi-electronic beats, ‘Yes’ sees a properly menacing, sleazy sounding Chris Martin, riding a huge bassline from Guy Berryman, yearning for her to ‘only say Yes’ speaks volumes to many a lovelorn male. Sounding better than he has in years, his lyrics and melodies are attacked and one-upped by Buckland’s slide guitars, Eno’s decisions to mix this just-so, and the chap that arranged the strings get’s a gold star.

Halfway through, a big sweeping zoom comes out of nowhere, a massive riff of U2 sizes and a strangely ethereal vocal hidden behind some synths twists this 7 minute song inside out and Will Champion bursts out of the blocks. I can see strobes, smoke machines, crowds going wild and festivals falling to their knees in admiration. ‘Yes’ is a true distillation of everything that Coldplay have ever done well, and then pushed to exciting new places.

The title is split across two tracks, ‘Viva la Vida’ coming first. ‘Long live life’, is my rough translation, and this is in the big uplifiting tradition of certain Coldplay songs (‘Clocks’, anyone?). It builds and builds, Biblical and military images, tympani… it’s a BIG song. Apparently, he ‘ruled the world’ at some point: odd lyrics aside, the few bars post chorus certainly show the old comparison still stands strong. These guys did listen to some Radiohead, keep listening to a bit of Radiohead, and water down the Oxfordshire lads’ weirdness and make it massive.

What I do love all the way through this album are the backing vocals. It sounds like the rest of the band have crowded round a mic and are bellowing wonderfully into it, letting loose a whole lotta love, so to speak. By the time ‘Violet Hill’, the big single, the free one they gave away on the website, with the NME, the exposure and the teaser, though, it’s back to the military darkness. Eno builds it up, Jonny Buckland rains down Creep-like distortion and the rhythms pound in the background, emphasising some of the best lyrics on the disc:

‘Was a long and dark December/When the banks became cathedrals/And the fog/Became God/Priests clutched onto bibles/Hollowed out to fit their rifles/And the cross was held aloft’. Lots of dark stuff like this, switching to a rather yearning chorus, but Buckland even has a little solo (yes! a guitar solo! not lying, honest!). Atypical, somewhat, of the album, with the sturm und drang here a bit more aggressive sonically than the rest, but it makes the lightness of ‘Strawberry Swing’ even sweeter.

Pretty guitars float above a poundingly simple rhythm and a thrumming bass, and as the synths build slowly in the background, you can see suns set, acoustic guitars jangle and it’s 1999 again, the world is a simpler place and Coldplay are back on form. It’s rare these days to find an album better in the second half than the first, bands hoping the momentum of the front-loaded first half takes you through to the end, but Coldplay have built and and built the complexity and interest with Side B, as it were, taking finally to ‘Death And All His Friends’.

Gliding along on a piano line, it’s acutally quite an anodyne finish, especially as one would expect such a portentious song title to bring a big, dark, nasty end to a complex album, but it’s back to the holding pattern. The sparing use of background vocals takes this to about four minutes in, then it build up to another Eno-scape, rounding it out in the same way he brough Viva La Vida in: with a shimmering, almost ambient, almost instrumental – it’s pretty much what ‘Life In Technicolour’ would have been with some random lyrics put on top.

What’s going on, here, then? For once, a Coldplay album has left me feeling curious, rather than emotionally drained, bruised, bored, or weepy (delete as applicable.) I want to explore it more, and delve into its sonic pockets, decipher the rather abstract lyrics and work out what it’s all about. Apart from ‘Violet Hill’, there’s nothing here that’ll spawn a number one, although ‘Yes’ will lift hundreds of thousands of concert goers into the stratosphere.

7/10

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