When Coldplay’s Viva La Vida first leaked, Perez Hilton gave his own unenthusiastic opinion: “[I]t sucks. Sad.” And normally, this offhand criticism wouldn’t phase the rest of the blogosphere — but media outlets have been comparing the beloved celeblogger to Clive Davis and Pitchforkmedia.com as of late, so we might expect an album review with more than one verb. People have been calling this guy “the new music industry.” He doesn’t even give us a pull quote. What’s worse? He’s way off.
That said, Coldplay ain’t that hard to shit on. A year ago, they still seemed hopelessly wimpy heirs to U2’s world’s-biggest-band throne — continuing to play music somewhere between artistic sentiment and commercial sap. They were massively successful, of course, but they were still just our favorite heartbreak band. According to the New York Times, they were the “most insufferable band of the decade”; according to the rest of us, they were how I know you’re gay. Then they got retro super-producer Brian Eno to helm Viva La Vida — their fourth full-length album — and even Bono blinked.
Coldplay’s ensuing Viva campaign, of truly presidential proportion, started strong with the one-two punch of “Violet Hill” and “Viva La Vida” — the disc’s first two radio tracks. Heavy on melodrama and the letter v, “Viva” and “Violet” expose the band’s two best tones: sad and, well, sadder. But unlike other Coldplay singles, they’re impossibly inventive and still infectious — from “Violet”‘s slinky quarter-note crunch to the Renaissance-era resonance of the title track. And they’re not even Viva‘s best songs.
Instead, the album’s core — from “Lost!” through “Yes” — proves most rewarding on return visits. The spare guitar and organic percussion on “Lost!” isn’t far removed from the Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime,” but the beat suggests recent Chris Martin collaborator Kanye West. It’s damn near dance music, which is a big statement for a band whose arena crowds barely move when they’re not waving lighters back and forth. “42,” the next track, is a Radiohead-esque, three-part suite; “Lovers in Japan” is a 21st-century “Solsbury Hill”; and “Yes,” which mixes Eastern strings with Nashville guitars, bathes Chris Martin’s lower register in woodwind flares that update the paranoia of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” It’s all very aurally adventurous, and it rather embarrasses 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head — once Coldplay’s best album.
Viva‘s weakest point, on the other hand, is Chris Martin’s insistence on themes of courage and valor. Look no further than the album cover — where a bare-breasted heroine stands atop a scene of manmade death and destruction — for his savior fixation, later accentuated with certain lyrics: “Be my mirror, my sword, my shield/My missionaries in a foreign field” he sings on “Viva La Vida.” Yes, it’s heroic stuff, but it’s more medieval word association than coherent commentary. And at times, it borders on bizarre economic irony — as if Martin, who’s notorious for writing “Free Trade” on his hand during performances, is boasting about saving the music industry with this album. But knowing that his band will sell more CDs than anyone else this year, it’s a chance he’s willing to take.
Elsewhere, Martin’s musical fetishes show up in his lyrics: his ramblings about big and little fish in “Lost!” echo Radiohead’s “Optimistic,” and a line about “soldiers…solder[ing] on” from “Lovers in Japan” comes awful close to a classic Killers lyric (“I’ve got soul/But I’m not a soldier”). Martin recently told Rolling Stone that one of Viva‘s best lyrics (“I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge,” from the last track) was written by Brian Eno, not the band; perhaps he should have borrowed a few more lines.
Musically, meanwhile, you wonder just how much Coldplay borrowed from Eno — or from better bands, for that matter. Chris Martin loves talking about borrowing music about as much as he likes borrowing music in the first place, and his countless influences bleed through this album. As previously mentioned, shades of Radiohead and U2 float in and out — two of Martin’s favorites — but just because you show your hand doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one. We can only hope that Coldplay is holding the cards, not Brian Eno.
Either way, Viva La Vida is an accomplishment, rarely missing outside of the pointless and pitifully-named “Chinese Sleep Chant” (the b-side to “Yes”). On album closer “Death and All His Friends,” Chris Martin sings that “we’ll make an escape” — and he might as well be talking about his band. One bad album from becoming a critical whipping boy, Coldplay has delivered a sonic departure from their entire back catalogue, and it’d be a true shame to overlook it because of some sappy song you heard on The O.C.