Mojo JULY 2008 - by David Sheppard


Coldplay: Viva La Vida

Chris Martin and co wheel in Brian Eno, hammered dulcimers and existential doubt for that difficult fourth album.

Coldplay, it was once asserted, make "big music about small things". While the unassuming quartet's previous trio of sensitively anthemic albums have witnessed a steady ratcheting up of production values, Chris Martin's lyrics have remained a modest study in vague, middle class yearning - an introspective canvas upon which millions could project their own humours and heartaches. Named after a Frida Kahlo painting, Viva La Vida grapples with a darker universality. As the album's subtitle Death And All His Friends makes plain, mortality is a central theme and and while it's more Ian McCulloch than Søren Kierkegaard ("ghosts" and "heaven" are Bunnymen leitmotifs) the sense of a songwriter straining for gravity is palpable. That said, Martin, a well-adjusted, multi-millionaire father, happily hitched to a toothsome film star, can surely be forgiven for the occasional backslide into bushy-tailed optimism.

Coldplay's new-found lyrical gravitas is matched by a refurbished musical palette. As was the case when Talking Heads, U2 and Travis sought to 'dream it all up again', Brian Eno is on hand to lob conceptual spanners into the band's hitherto orthodox machinery. Thus, Jonny Buckland finds his signature, see-sawing guitar lines abstracted into shimmering, ethereal splinters, while tack pianos, woozy North African strings and synthetic washes fill out the sound. Relegated, if not entirely banished, are the four-square balladic rock structures of yore, replaced by portmanteau songs with not entirely predictable chord progressions. While it's hardly prog (although pastoral diptych Death And All His Friends is closer to Genesis than Oasis), Viva La Vida is certainly in no hurry to give up its melodic riches.

Opener Life In Technicolor is a semi-ambient instrumental - irridescence suddenly ceding to a clanging massed dulcimer riff which, disappointingly, refuses to develop. More successful are the scrubbed acoustic guitars and flamenco handclaps of nocturnal meditation Cemeteries Of London which finds Martin pondering the afterlife over an Imagine-like piano and string arrangement which cunningly morphs into what sounds like Gang Of Four playing Kashmir. The pretty Strawberry Swing is Fleetwood Mac's Tusk tickled by glittering highlife guitars. All of which makes Lost! and Violet Hill, a brace of unreconstructed stadium-tailored plodders, seem gratuitously bland.

"The king is dead / Long live the king," Martin sings on the tabla-propelled Yes and while they fight shy of radical Kid A-style reinvention, hats should be doffed to Coldplay for at least having the artistic cajones to mess with a winning formula.