New York Times JUNE 25, 2008 - by Jon Caramanica


Here's an adjective not commonly associated with the British whine-rock specialists Coldplay: bruising. Here's another: swaggering. And finally a third: surprising.

And yet, on the best parts of their new album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, these are just the things Coldplay has become. Produced by Brian Eno (responsible for much of U2's greatest work), Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire) and Rik Simpson, the album rumbles like nothing else the band has done. There is thrust in the rhythms, obfuscation in the arrangements and abstraction in the lyrics, all where there was previously little, or none.

Might Coldplay, that most staid of rock bands, be capable of growth?

In flashes, maybe, yes. But over the course of its performance on Monday night at Madison Square Garden - a free show, tickets for which were distributed through a promotion on the band's Web site ( - Coldplay steadily regressed to the mean

The night began with uncommon verve. The guitarist Jonny Buckland pierced through Violet Hill with forceful jabs. On Viva La Vida, one of the new album's most invigorating tracks, the band clustered intimately at the front of the stage, but the drummer Will Champion loomed large, hammering ferociously at his floor tom as if it were a particularly stubborn railroad spike. Champion shone throughout: on other, less successful numbers (Clocks, 42) he was intense and brawny, giving the band an appealing, hypnotic density.

On its early records Coldplay was exquisite verging on precious, largely because of the plain falsetto of the lead singer, Chris Martin. The songs sounded fragile, which is perhaps why the band incurred so much bilious response - even when troubled, rock stars are supposed to stomp and preen, while Coldplay only moped.

Viva La Vida, likely to be the No. 1 album in the country this week, still centers on doubt, but of the sort that follows a fall from hubris rather than the kind that comes before it.

Still, for all its anguish on record, Coldplay can be self-assured onstage. For Yellow - its 2000 breakthrough single, and still its most durable song - the band, outfitted in a look that suggested nineteenth-century military chic, marched through the crowd and set up across the arena from the stage, back by Gate 60 in the mezzanine. After one false start and a bout of profanity by Martin (one of many, a seeming attempt at informality), the band found the groove, and Martin took some impressive liberties with the song's sturdy melody.

But even when Coldplay was at its strongest on Monday, as on In My Place and Lovers In Japan, it was dull to watch. (Not much has changed since the band released a pretty, stultifying live DVD in 2003.) Toward the end of the night, a decidedly U2-ish version of "Fix You" had the expectant air of an empty pub at last call: things are happening, somewhat, but the room feels stagnant.

But then Martin flubbed a line, spitting yet another curse into the microphone. As if to explain, or compensate, for the gaffe, he altered the words of the song a few moments later, perfectly in rhythm and in key: "Lyrics to old songs that you don't know / And you embarrass yourself at MSG / But it doesn't matter one bit, everyone got in for free."

On first blush it was a clever save. But you couldn't avoid the creeping sensation that even this seemingly spontaneous trick was little more than a neatly executed, contrived stab at humility in a show measured to the last second. And even when it was done, the band didn't drop its veneer: the crowd stuck around and cheered well after the house lights went on, hoping for an encore, but Coldplay was long gone.