The Age JUNE 21, 2008 - by Craig Mathieson


Coldplay's latest album proves they are still very much hot stuff.

In a music industry suffering the death of a thousand (job) cuts, nothing matters more than the successful launch of a superstar act's new disc. But these days, with file-sharing and illegal downloading significantly cutting into CD sales, fewer artists than ever before can lay claim to the title. Greats from past generations merely remain wealthy on back catalogue sales while new pretenders to the throne generally make do with a profitable niche.

Then there is Coldplay.

The British quartet have sold a combined thirty million copies of their three previous studio albums, creating an average figure per release that even the most punch-drunk music biz figure can calculate. So Coldplay have been out on the hustings these past few weeks to support the unveiling of Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, their uncomfortably titled new disc: free concerts in London, New York City and Barcelona, carefully doled out media access, and an artfully assembled video for the long player's first single, Violet Hill.

It is a process that is frenetic and familiar, but for the record industry the stakes are higher than ever before. If Viva La Vida doesn't sell a similar amount of units, either through online or shops, to what its predecessors did, then it could be the compact disc's equivalent of hitting peak oil - the moment when decline becomes institutional, even terminal.

On Coldplay's shoulders rest the immediate future of EMI, the venerable London-based label that is one of the "big four" remaining multinational labels.

The home of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Spice Girls has been in the hands of Terra Firma, a British private equity firm since last August when they paid six-point-five billion dollars to acquire the company. Terra Firma's CEO, Guy Hands, has instituted deep reductions in the staff headcount since, aiming to trim numbers from about five-thousand-five-hundred to near three-thousand-five-hundred.

Relations between major labels and their signings usually take a predictable form: band beats chest and assert their artistic independence, company smile with benevolent ease at their wayward charges and quietly dish out the royalties. But Hands' front foot approach hasn't gone down well with EMI's roster, who have reacted uneasily to a perceived bean counter taking charge. Hands, who financed the EMI takeover with a level of debt perfectly acceptable twelve months ago yet currently considered problematic, has been making conciliatory noise of late, but right now EMI needs Coldplay more than Coldplay need EMI.

This comes at a time when other leading artists are simply withdrawing from the major label environment. EMI's former regime couldn't re-sign another flagship act, Radiohead, when their contract expired in 2005. That band, whose determination to experiment at the start of the century left a gap that Coldplay filled with their 2000 debut, released their next album online, allowing digital purchasers to set their own price for 2007's In Rainbows.

Other acts, such as Madonna and Jay-Z, have signed "360" deals - contracts that include recording, live and merchandising rights - with the powerhouse American concert promoter Live Nation. The Material Girl, who has been with Warner Music for a quarter of a century, got one-hundred-and-thirty-million dollars for a ten-year commitment. Ever mindful of her finances, she took part payment in Live Nation stock.

The rush to leave behind record companies has at times bordered on the compulsive - Paul McCartney released his 2007 album, Memory Almost Full, through the fifteen-thousand outlets of US coffee chain Starbucks - and it hasn't gone unnoticed by Coldplay.

"Being on a major label at the moment is like living in your grandparents' house," the group's frontman, Chris Martin, recently admitted to trade journal Billboard. "Everyone knows they need to move out, and they will eventually, but we kind of like our grandmother."

In such commercially difficult times EMI recalls the troubled subject of Coldplay's Fix You, the dry, emblematic ballad of salvation that was a hit single from their last album, 2005's X&Y. The irony, however, is that Martin is suddenly no longer interested in offering the prospect of hope to others. Viva La Vida is an act of personal renewal, an unexpected one from a band that has a talent for calmly rendering the anthemic intimate.

It is not entirely surprising to find the name Brian Eno in the sleeve credits. The former Roxy Music maven has long been an influential producer and collaborator, having had a hand in everything from the elevation of U2 in the 1980s to the invention of ambient music. Eno was one of three outside producers for the extensive recording sessions, with added thanks for "sonic landscapes". It's a telling notation. Eno uses keyboard pulses and background washes to define a song's architecture - tracks acquire space, they breath.

Viva La Vida makes good use of this framework. The sound is varied and expressive, and while there are ten songs formally listed, several comprise diverse pieces contracted together (not always effectively), adding to the sense of depth. The album is not a left turn into artistic self-endowment, but it does give new, varied voice to Coldplay's obvious craftsmanship.

Songs cut in mid-beat and segue unexpectedly; they no longer have the stubbornly clear through line that made Coldplay so attractive to radio programmers. 42 begins as a tender piano ballad, burnished by mournful strings, before it unexpectedly acquires a skittering beat and muscular bass. The latter part has the queasy majesty of post-punk champions Echo & The Bunnymen, one of several English icons subtly referenced; another is Michael Nyman, who can be discerned in the deft, lyrical orchestration underpinning the title track.

Yet another, broader still, is London itself. Coldplay have rarely exhibited a particular sense of time or place - Martin's constructs have traditionally been universal. But here, beginning with the rousing Cemeteries Of London, he mediates the city's history. Where a Ray Davies latches on to geography, Martin sees London as a collective memory. On the thumping, percussive single Violet Hill lovers silently walking towards a favoured place, where they will forever part, imagine the strife that has previously swept these streets - Bibles and rifles are referenced - as they prepare for their own personal conflagration.

On X&Y Martin's tendency was to avert such crises, but here he either invokes the pain without offering solace, or ignores it completely. Viva La Vida is thick with nods to the departed and the rituals of the dead. "You thought you might be a ghost / You didn't get to heaven but you made it close," he sings on 42, setting up shop in the netherworld.

The singer, husband of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, even takes a stab at carnal desire on the seven-minute epic Yes, a cut whose Eastern-influenced instrumentation drifts off into a swooning, diffused ocean of noise. Coldplay's ambitions are not always fulfilled, but even when they misfire - as with the Afropop of Strawberry Swing - you're left with a side of the band previously unseen.

Martin and his bandmates certainly sound invigorated by the prospect of diversity. Viva La Vida is a better album than their career has suggested possible. It might not save EMI and fortify the record business, but it has given Coldplay fresh purpose