Thursday, July 3, 2008

Coldplay / "Viva La Vida"

I've made no secret of my disdain for Coldplay's previous album, the polarizing "X & Y". However, with pre-release news that their new album would be of a more experimental nature (without the heavy synthesizers that sank "X & Y" for me) and produced by the one of music's most brilliant minds (Brian Eno), morale was high. After all, I enjoyed "Parachutes" and found "A Rush of Blood to the Head" to be a near-masterpiece. As Meat Loaf famously put it, "two out of three ain't bad". However, when I finally heard the finished product of "Viva La Vida" my reaction was that Coldplay has made their most impressive album, but it lacked the compelling heart-tugging anthems which helped their best work to be more than the sum of its parts. There are songs to love, sure, but nothing to fall in love with.

The album begins with Eno's assistance very evident. "Life in Technicolor" is a nearly-instrumental number which seamlessly blends Eno's best pop work of the 1970's with Coldplay's fist-pumping crowd-pleasers. It ends on a crescendo of sorts, before "Cemeteries of London" begins. The sound is again fuller, the execution flawless, and the lyrics ("there are ghost-towns in the ocean... I see God come in my garden") shrouded in mystique with a gothic nature. Simply put, it's excellent. Through the fog cast over by "Cemeteries of London", the organ notes forming the base of "Lost!" shine through like a beacon as Chris Martin offers up an example of the arena-sized sing-along anthems which have become Coldplay's signature as their sound and following have expanded. While never gripping, it's delivered efficiently and compacts as much energy as a Coldplay song can in under 4-minutes.

"42" begins slowly, but effectively, as Martin's vocals are strengthened in an audio illusion of sorts by the strings accompanying him. Halfway through, however, the songs shifts fronts to a straightforward rocker with the memorable hook "you thought you might be a ghost. You didn't get to heaven, but you made it close". The guitar, combined with a subdued jazz piano in the background, lead a nice if not a bit forgettable outro into the near-seven minute "Lovers in Japan". The track is split into two parts, the first a stomp which will sound familiar to anyone who's listened to U2 (although it's not a rip-off, like 2005's "Talk" was to Kraftwerk's "Computer Love"). The piano takes the lead in an upbeat fashion above the muffled roar of guitar. It may not sound entirely original, but it sure is easy to listen to. The second movement sees the guitar taking a further step back as it is replaced by another piano. It could be called the "sensitive" part following the "rock" part. It could also be called the "dull" part following the "exhilirating" part.

Rock makes a return on "Yes". The song features the smoothest guitar playing on the record. Again, the song consists of two movements. The first is the "heavier" movement (although this is Coldplay, not Zeppelin, we're talking about) whereas the second is basically a glorified guitar piece with indiscernable vocals and drums. Overall, the song is another great listen and segues well into the lead single and title track. "Viva La Vida" is the kind of song that gets stuck in your head, but you don't mind a wink. The strings are lush and melodic, the lyrics political and somewhat personal without being blunt, and Martin's vocals (as well as the group's backing vocals) pristine. "Violet Hill" is a solid, though not-quite-brilliant guitar track, with Martin's best lyrical work on the album. "I don't want to be a soldier who the captain of some sinking ship would stow, far below", he sings, reflecting either losing love or losing faith in leadership depending on your interpretation of the song.

"Strawberry Swing" is the kind of pleasant, whimsical, and disregardable song that works at filling up a tracklist without detracting from the overall quality of the album, but will be little more than a nice after-thought when reflecting on the album. Closer "Death and All His Friends" is the third song on the album to top the six-minute mark. Despite the tenebrific title, the song actually functions as a fairly upbeat sing-along number, or in other words Coldplay being Coldplay. It segues into the same rich melody which began the album, only with expanded sound and Martin's vocals singing about the end. Comparisons to the penultimate track on "Abbey Road" are easily justified. As one critic noted, it "is sort of a Brian Eno take on 'The End.'" Too true.

With "Viva La Vida", any conflicting opinions of the music were not from listener-to-listener as they were with "X & Y", but rather within myself. It's impossible to deny its merits: the production is absolutely flawless, perhaps the best I've heard on a record all year; the album is without a weak link; the politics of the album are handled with a reasonable amount of subtlety. However, without the emotional pull of their most compelling works, such as "Warning Sign" and "The Scientist", I felt as though it were only a beautiful vase. Great to look at, but nothing inside. It is an incredibly and impeccably well-decorated vase though.

Rating: 7.9

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