Time JUNE 5, 2008 - by Josh Tyrangiel


Coldplay has sold thirty million copies of its first three albums, won four Grammys and cranked out several colossal ballads that, by apparent mandate of the Writers Guild, must be played during every TV drama's romantic-crisis montage. Only the deaf can claim not to know Coldplay. Loving Coldplay is a bit more complicated.

Thanks to the band's ubiquity and decency about rock stardom, Coldplay has nudged its way into a place alongside U2 and Radiohead in the holy trinity of bands that affluent adults consider good, good-hearted and worth breaking the bank to see in concert. But a small cult devoted to hating Coldplay has also arisen - which wouldn't be worth mentioning except that most of its members are music critics and their fury has a Lou Dobbs-on-immigration edge to it. To mark the release of 2005's X&Y, the New York Times' Jon Pareles declared, "Coldplay is the most insufferable band of the decade." (Adding salt to the wound, the piece appeared in the same section as a full-page ad for X&Y.) In his book Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman upped the loathing and expanded the time frame: "Coldplay is absolutely the shittiest fucking band I've ever heard in my entire fucking life."

Get past the obscenities, and the criticism amounts to this: lead singer Chris Martin is a cornball solipsist, the melodies all have the same mass-produced "character" as a Pottery Barn table, and Coldplay's albums sound like crib-safe versions of Radiohead - a band that, while commercially less successful, is infinitely more hip and worthy of adulation. Film critics have waged their own version of this argument with moviegoers about the relative merits of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, resulting, as you've no doubt heard, in the complete commercial failure of all Spielberg movies. But if scathing reviews haven't had an effect on listeners, they do seem to have had an impact on Coldplay.

In the run-up to its fourth album, Viva La Vida, out June 17, Martin has volunteered that his band isn't as good as Radiohead or U2 and that cultural dominance arrived before it was earned. The goal on Viva La Vida, he's said, was to "get better rather than bigger" - which explains the choice of Brian Eno as co-producer. Eno, sixty, was a founding member of Roxy Music but gained his greatest fame as the composer of such endearingly odd ambient albums as Music For Airports and as the producer behind U2's sonic leap on its fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire. He's a mystical figure in rock circles for, among other things, using hypnosis to help bands reach creative nirvana. Even his name sounds like a hallucinogen.

Musically, Eno nudges Coldplay a few steps closer to transcendence not by opening the band up - though he did have the group record in Spanish churches and play with tablas - but by tying it down. Viva La Vida starts with the light pulse of a keyboard and a beep that could be a passing satellite. Everything seems to exist in its own silo until a rising whoosh comes along and the instruments merge into a huge harmonious collision. The track is called Life In Technicolor, and what differentiates it from previous Coldplay attempts to lasso the cosmos (Speed Of Sound, Clocks) is the details - or rather, the fact that there are details. Whereas before, the band would pound listeners into submission with giant chords and a lyric about space, here they let the songs' various parts resolve themselves, and there are no lyrics at all, just a single evocative group yawp.

It's a neat trick, turning discipline into ecstasy, and Coldplay executes it with enough variations to keep things surprising. Strings pop up everywhere - not to grease your tear ducts but to enrich the sound and drive the countermelodies. After years of playing to the back row, guitarist Jonny Buckland has discovered that guitars come with more than one pedal, and his work on Lovers In Japan and Violet Hill is admirably precise. Will Champion, whose previous claim to fame was having the greatest drummer name of all time, bangs away on his kettles and timpani like a man celebrating his release from captivity.

But the lessons learned musically don't translate to Martin's lyrics. He tries to sound less like the sweetest guy in the world and more like a man of mystery; he's even given the album a theme - death. "At night they would go walking till the breaking of the day / The morning is for sleeping," he begins on Cemeteries Of London, one of several attempts at narrative. But even if you pick your way past that pileup of gerunds, the storytelling never takes off. Beyond the absence of plot and characters, Martin just doesn't have a knack for phrasing, and he rarely trusts his own observations. He'd rather declare that 42 is a song about ghosts ("You thought you might be a ghost! / You didn't get to heaven, but you made it close") or name a track Death And All His Friends than craft a thought about absence and let the listener figure it out. After four albums, it might also be time to stop thinking of Martin as a great rock singer. His voice - high, sweet, pretty - has emotional impact but not much thematic range. Singing about the afterlife, he's as spooky as Casper.

Where Martin shines - and when Viva La Vida peaks - is when the subject turns to desire. He's got a soul singer's ability to communicate the totality of love with a few oohs and aahs, and he saves Lovers In Japan from his own clichés ("Lovers keep on the road you're on / Runners until the race is run") just by opening up his throat and letting loose. On Strawberry Swing, Martin not only turns in a nice lyric ("People moving all the time / Inside a perfectly straight line / Don't you wanna just curve away?") but coos in a way that sounds like the perfect day he's describing, while Buckland plays a single guitar riff so softly and sweetly, you hardly notice when your feet leave the ground.

Coldplay has already proved itself critic-proof, and whether it wants to be any bigger or not, the odds are that Viva La Vida will be one of the top sellers of 2008. Ubiquity will remain theirs. But having risked a bit, Coldplay has also gained. It's pretty tough to call the band insufferable. Imperfect, maybe.