The Guardian JUNE 6, 2008 - by Alexis Petridis


No less a musical authority than Guy Hands has called Viva La Vida "the most anticipated album of the year". For once, it's hard to argue with the new EMI boss: the anticipation comes not just as a result of Coldplay's preceding vast success, but the sense that they finally might be about to offer something different from the increasingly windy and lachrymose stadium ballads that fuelled it. Rock's most celebrated blue-sky thinker, Brian Eno, is on board. There are intimations of artistic insurrection and tumult. The album's title may sound like something you'd find on the cocktail menu on TGI Friday, but it comes from a painting by surrealist Frida Kahlo. The cover features Delacroix's romantic depiction of the spirit of revolution, Liberty Leading The People Over The Barricades.

Meanwhile, singer Chris Martin recently stormed out of a puff-piece newspaper interview, declaring "we don't care if we sell a million less records". This parting shot proves telling about the actual scale of reinvention that Viva La Vida offers. Announcing that you don't care if you sell a million fewer records sounds bullish, until you realise that X&Y sold ten million copies. Selling a million fewer than that hardly constitutes throwing commercial considerations to the wind in favour of a bafflingly abstruse artistic statement. Notice is thus served that we may not be dealing with The Faust Tapes here.

Such thoughts are underlined by opener Life In Technicolor. It starts as a Kraftwerkish instrumental, before the arrival of drums, guitars and a woah-oh chorus suitable for singing en masse in a sports stadium. Indeed, there are moments during Viva La Vida where you feel impelled to take Coldplay aside and explain to them that there's more to reinventing your sound than calling Brian Eno, coming up with some enigmatic song titles and telling people you've reinvented your sound: you are actually supposed to change your music as well.

There's certainly a wider sonic palette on offer - a jerkily funky beat powering Cemeteries Of London, a vaguely African-sounding guitar line on Strawberry Swing - but it's discreet shading. Coldplay's constituent elements remain intact: mid-tempo songs, echoing guitars, piano ballads that surge into bittersweet anthemics, falsetto vocals. The words continue to deal only in the most general of generalities - "Just be patient and don't worry", "You've got to soldier on". The messages are weighty and inarguable (42, for example, has sussed out that when people die, their loved ones remember them), but the fear that Martin could let fly with a line about tomorrow being the first day of the rest of your life looms ever-present.

Lyrics aside, Viva La Vida fixes most of the glaring problems with 2005's X&Y, simply by eschewing verse-chorus structures in favour of something more episodic. Uncoupling them from the standard framework allows Chris Martin's melodies to shine: even his loudest detractor could hardly deny his way with a tune, as evidenced here by 42 and Lovers In Japan.

Perhaps more importantly, the songs seem less thuddingly predictable than Fix You or What If? Confronted with a title track so clearly destined to get huge crowds punching the air, you might say that the results are more subtle only in the same way that being slapped across the face is more subtle than being smashed over the head with a breezeblock. But there's no doubt it seems noticeably less craven in its attempt to tug the world's heartstrings.

One might argue that Viva La Vida's mild tinkering with the formula represents a failure of imagination: perhaps it's hard to think outside the box when the box is the size of the Las Vegas MGM Grand Garden Arena. Equally, however, there's a genuine conviction about its contents, a huge advance both on its predecessor and their legion of imitators.

Coldplay remain thunderingly uncool, a state of affairs you suspect couldn't be altered whether they were being produced by Brian Eno, Brian Wilson or Brian Cant: I have a terrible feeling that 42 is a reference to the meaning of life in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, thus raising the prospect that their next album might include songs called This Is An Ex-Parrot and I Invented It In Camberwell and It Looks Like A Carrot. At its best, however, Viva La Vida poses an interesting question: do you need to be cool or experimental if you can write songs that carry the listener along regardless of their reservations - indeed, almost despite them?