After striking it big in 2003 with the critically-acclaimed A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay fell into a bit of a creative rut. While their followup, X&Y, sold exceptionally well, it also yielded unfavorable reviews, with New York Times reviewer Jon Parelese calling the band “the most insufferable band of the decade.” Others argued that they were too soft, too “mom-friendly” for a rock act that some hailed as the next U2. As if to confirm those remarks, a survey by Travelodge in April 2008 found that Coldplay was “the band most people like to fall asleep to.”
In an attempt to sway over critics who once called them “boring” and “predictable,” Coldplay recruited clutch producer Brian Eno and switched up their style – albeit slightly – for their latest release, Viva la Vida or Death and all His Friends, resulting in a record that, although not the phenomenal masterpiece some want, is a refreshing return to form for a band in dire need of one.
Album opener and instrumental track, “Life in Technicolor,” gets Viva off to an upbeat start, with pounding drums and a pleasant melody driven by acoustic guitar.
“Cemeteries of London” follows, and is the first indication that this album is a far cry from X&Y; its distorted guitars and group chanting on the chorus distinguish it as slightly uncharted territories for the typically soft band.
As the album plods on, certain tracks stand out as certified triumphs – namely, “42” and “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love.” Both songs shift their direction towards the end, creating two distinct movements – a style Coldplay didn’t even think of touching on X&Y.
Then, there are the two singles, and arguably best songs on the ablum. “Violet Hill” is the biggest stretch for Coldplay, with its heavy distorted guitars and its lack of a consistent Chris Martin falsetto. It was a gutsy choice for a first single, but so far it seems to have paid off.
Title track Viva la Vida may not stray as far from the norm as Violet Hill, but it stands out as one of Coldplay’s best since The Scientist.
Its light orchestration and heavy use of acoustic guitars marks it as a definitne improvement over anything found on X&Y, which suffered from overproduction.
But despite its occasional triumphs, Viva still falls victim to a perennial Coldplay problem: lyrics. Chris Martin tries his best, and delivers words that are leap years ahead of past material. Goofy lyrics nearly ruin “42,” as Martin sings, “Those who are dead are not dead/ They’re just living in my head.” Themes of death and the afterlife – an often used subject matter in rock these days – pervade Viva’s lyrics, but Martin fails to bring anything new to the table.
The Arcade Fire’s terrific debut album, Funeral, touches on these topics in a far more original way. So, while Viva is able to reach new heights for the band musically, it fails to keep up with its lyrics.
At the end of the day, whether Coldplay’s latest album receives a good review or not is entirely inconsequential; it’s bound to sell millions in its first few weeks, and is already slated to top the charts in its first week of release.
What Coldplay cares about now is not the money or the sales, but what the critics have to say. And it seems they’ve listened to them since X&Y, as Viva la Vida is a marked improvement and a step in the right direction for a band that needs to continue to mix things up if they want to be ranked up there with U2 and the Beatles.