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Pitchfork JUNE 16, 2008 - by Ryan Dombal
COLDPLAY: VIVA LA VIDA OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS
Earlier this year, Britons voted Coldplay as The Band Most Likely to Put You to Sleep. The poll, conducted by hotel chain Travelodge, had Chris Martin & Co. beating out aural Ambien including James Blunt and Norah Jones. Even for a band known to take solace in their overarching pleasantness, the drowsy coronation doubled as a harsh insult. After all, Coldplay is a rock band. A grandma-friendly, Radiohead-normalizing, disarmingly polite rock band led by a man who sounds like he's still yearning for puberty perhaps... but a rock band nonetheless. After proving their stadium bona fides with 2002's bristling A Rush Of Blood To The Head, these wuss messiahs fattened up with X&Y, a startlingly bland affair that even forced eternally level-headed New York Times critic Jon Pareles to dub them "the most insufferable band of the decade." The Travelodge survey indicated this considerate foursome wasn't even keeping people awake long enough to piss them off anymore. So Coldplay did what any U2 acolytes worth a chiming guitar chord would do - they went off to "rip it up and start again." But Viva isn't a complete overhaul á la Achtung Baby or Kid A; just as they dull the sharp corners of their legendary influences musically, Coldplay offer a diluted version of the "experimental" mid-career maneuver with their fourth LP. It's a case of well-honed troubleshooting that should keep the faithful conscious enough to appreciate its subtle improvements.
Ever self-deprecating, Martin offered his band's thesis to MTV a couple weeks ago: "We look at what other people are doing and try and steal all the good bits," he said. "We steal from so many different places that hopefully it becomes untraceable." That last bit is probably wishful thinking. For their "new direction" album, Coldplay hired the egghead responsible for more new direction albums than any other producer over the past thirty-five years, Brian Eno. The move isn't original, but it's smart. A self-described "sculptor" with a tendency to chip away rather than augment, Eno helps Coldplay reverse their bloat in favor of a slimmer sound; the anthems remain but they're no longer bogged down by incessant refrains and overdubs.
Thanks to a bubbling bit of exotic percussion that wouldn't sound out of place on Peter Gabriel's latter-day LPs, Lost! is transformed from Just Another Coldplay Song into a uniquely alluring smash and live staple for years to come. The Gabriel connection is also apparent on the spectacular, wide-eyed Strawberry Swing, which floats light tribal drums above circular guitars and Martin's idyllic musings. Think In Your Eyes: The Next Generation. More welcomed semi-surprises: Ballsy first single Violet Hill pulls off some honest-to-God Scary Monsters mutant funk while Chinese Sleep Chant is a shoegaze excursion as traceable as it is passable. Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs' touch can be heard on the strung-out anthem Viva La Vida, its "woah oh oh!" refrain already responsible for untold iPod sales. Apart from a few brief lulls into somnolent twinkle-pop, the music is purposeful, svelte, and modern. If only Martin could inject some pathos into his often-embarrassing universal scripture.
There's a thin line between lyrics that speak to everyone and lyrics that suck-up to everyone (see: Bono's steady devolution over the last couple decades). Even on Coldplay's best songs, Martin sometimes has trouble reconciling his inner hack with his better judgment. On Viva, he backs away from the wallowing self-pity that tanked X&Y, instead going for black-and-white extremes - life and death, love and lust, dreams and reality - with little regard for any shades of gray. His supposedly ominous headstone obsession on Cemeteries Of London is about as creepy as a midday graveyard stroll. And Lost! is nearly done in by a cringeworthy verse featuring big fish and a small pond. But there are moments when Martin's band mates push his wide-open words toward more specific meaning. Blissful nostalgia permeates Strawberry Swing so thoroughly it's impossible to deny its "perfect day," and the hook to Viva's closer relishes its immortal rush: "I don't want to follow death and all of his friends!" He may be a pointed critic of his own broadness - as seen in his guest appearance on Extras and in countless humble interviews - but Martin is still a hopeless sap. He's clearly aware of Thom Yorke's apocalyptic verve and Bono's most cunning reflexive confessionals, but thus far he's incapable of matching either one.
"Lights will guide you home / And ignite your bones / And I will try to fix you," sang Martin on X&Y's Fix You, a gag-inducing bit of motivational flotsam that came off like self-parody. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends offers a more believable fix to the current Coldplay dilemma, i.e., how does a pop band with artful aspirations please everyone while satisfying themselves at the same time? Because while they ape their forebears without mercy, there's no mistaking a Coldplay song from a U2 or Radiohead song. The new album expands their individuality in tiny, effective ways while maintaining their world-beating gifts. The record's violent, revolution-themed artwork is misleading. Viva is more like a bloodless coup - shrewd and inconspicuous in its progressive impulses.