INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Chicago Tribune JUNE 11, 2008 - by Greg Kot
BRIAN ENO TREADS SOFTLY IN SPRUCING UP COLDPLAY'S 'VIVA LA VIDA' STADIUM ANTHEMS
Politics Even though Coldplay made its debut in 2000, the British quartet are the last of the 20th Century rock bands. In their world, size still counts.
None of this digital-era niche-market culture for them. Like U2 or The Rolling Stones, they are an old-fashioned arena-rock band tied to an old-fashioned record label interested in selling lots of old-fashioned CDs. Indeed, the future of their label, Capitol Records - one of four remaining multinational conglomerates that dominate what's left of the 20th Century music business - is tied to the success of Coldplay's next album, the ponderously titled Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, which is due in stores Tuesday.
The big drums of commerce have been pounding for several weeks as Capitol rolls out Viva La Vida with a mixture of tradition-laden pomp (magazine cover stories, a commercial radio blitz, a Today Show appearance, and a major arena tour that brings the band to the United Center on July 23) and new-marketing stratagems (free shows in New York and Europe, a free download of the single Violet Hill, a digital stream of the new album on the IHeartMusic.com web-site, and an iPod TV ad).
All of which is a major turn-off for anyone who assumes that bigger often translates to blander, a world in which artistic ambition is sacrificed in the name of reaching the widest audience possible. And those skeptics have a point: Coldplay is a band devoted to crowd-pleasing, rather than making music that in any way might upset the marketplace.
Their sound is built on the voice and persona of singer Chris Martin, whose falsetto fragility and good-guy mannerisms make him the rock equivalent of a warm glass of milk and bedtime cookies. He's comfort food for folks who want to be rocked, but not too violently.
None of which makes Coldplay a bad band - just a predictable one. They have a knack for soaring melodies, and they've already given us at least two ubiquitous anthems (Yellow and Clocks). After two hit albums, Coldplay put the focus less squarely on Martin's wistful balladry and more on band dynamics for its 2005 release, X&Y. Seasoned with Kraftwerk and art-rock references, the album brought the rest of the band - drummer Will Champion, guitarist Jon Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman - more prominently into the mix. It was an earnest attempt at tinkering with the formula if not upending it.
Enter Brian Eno, the king of reinvention, who was brought in to produce Viva La Vida. Eno specializes in broadening the sound of smart rock bands (most notably on U2's Achtung Baby and Talking Heads' Remain In Light) by dramatizing strengths and dismantling cliches. On Viva La Vida, he doesn't go quite that far; rather than point Coldplay in a new direction, he takes what worked for the band before and dresses it up with new textures. The arrangements take on a dense, three-dimensional quality: voices soar on the distant horizon, guitars chime in the middle distance, hand claps dominate the foreground.
Several tracks graft together two or more songs, or morph continually in a way that suggests a progressive-rock suite without the fancy solos. 42 begins and ends in classic Coldplay fashion with Martin emoting over a drizzle of piano chords. In between there's a distressed guitar incursion and a shift into a big payoff chorus. Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant starts out with a string arrangement with Middle Eastern accents and ends in a blur of heavily distorted guitars that suggests My Bloody Valentine. Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love opens with metallic piano thundering over a kick drum and closes with a piano whispering over a subtle electronic wash. Purring through just about every song are enough subliminal Eno-esque touches to delight any audiophile with a great sound system and a set of headphones.
But at its core, this is still easily recognizable as a Coldplay album. The melodies are garnished with lots of wordless vocal hooks that should invite stadium sing-alongs. And Martin is still serving up lyrical fluff, even if his big subject this time is death. Martin has always come across as a concerned, caring sort, but he's not a particularly profound lyricist, and this time his wordplay teeters between banal and just plain bad ("Those who are dead are not dead / They're just living in my head").
No matter. Coldplay is about sound, not sense. If a big, stadium-sized rock record can be praised for its nuances, Viva La Vida is it. But those looking for a bold progression to rival Eno's finest collaborations will be disappointed.