The Globe And Mail JUNE 17, 2008 - by J.D. Considine


This should be where Coldplay really screws up.

You know the story - band rockets to the top, gets too big for its britches, makes ridiculous album and spends the next decade trying to recapture lost momentum. From Aerosmith to Smashing Pumpkins to The Beastie Boys, we've seen this story played out so many times that it doesn't even seem tragic any more.

Certainly, there's no denying that Coldplay fits the profile. After a meteoric rise, these young Britons clambered to the top of the rock heap in 2005 with the release of their third album, X&Y. Despite widespread snickering (if not outright hostility) from the rock press, Coldplay had established itself as one of the biggest rock acts in the world, being as commercially potent as U2, if not as universally known.

There have definitely been signs of celebrity rot setting in. By the time X&Y was released, the quartet had (in the public mind) been reduced to singer Chris Martin, who seemed a reasonably normal guy despite being married to a movie star (Gwyneth Paltrow) and having children named after a fruit and a biblical prophet (Apple and Moses). But Martin has begun to exhibit signs of PMS (Popstar Megalomania Syndrome). Recent interviews have seen him discussing his weakness for sleeping pills and worries about Brad Pitt; last week, he walked out on Britain's Radio 4, saying he would rather "go home and play."

Should all of that leave you expecting Coldplay's extravagantly titled fourth album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, to be a train wreck of epic proportions, prepare to be disappointed. Not only doesn't the album squander the goodwill or commercial momentum the band has built over the past eight years, but it shows that Coldplay's capacity for artistic growth remains undiminished.

Credit the balance between Martin's resolutely melodic writing and the album's expansive, atmospheric production for much of that. From the appropriately vivid hues of Life In Technicolor (which sweeps everything from tabla to tack piano into its sonic swirl) to the echoey textures of Death And All His Friends, Coldplay is working with a much broader sonic palette than before.

Some of that doubtless stems from the production team - in addition to crediting Brian Eno with the album's "sonic landscapes," the CD booklet also mentions "colours and additional production" by Jon Hopkins - but there's more to it than mere studio dress-ups. It's probably no accident that Yes is a song that could as easily be about the stress of superstardom as a bad relationship: "When we started we had high hopes / Now my back's on the line, my back's on the ropes." It winks at rock excess with a string-drenched arrangement that echoes everything from early Wings to Kashmir-era Led Zeppelin, and that brings a level of playfulness to the song that deftly undercuts any tendency toward self-pity.

Then there's Lost!, which wraps its stubborn defiance in an arrangement that manages to be both static (the droning organ and sustained harmonies) and propulsive (the thumping percussion and choked rhythm guitar), a dynamic that neatly mirrors the lyric. Or the jaunty Viva La Vida, which undercuts the near-corniness of its lyric (in which a rake looks back at his glory days, only to savour the contentment of his current, quiet life) with what might be described as a postmodern send-up of the Sgt. Pepper sound.

All of which is surely bad news for those who had been hoping for a spectacular crash and burn by the band. Of course, the potential is always there. It just might take another couple albums for Coldplay to realize it.