The Word JULY 2008 - by Roy Wilkinson


Coldplay: Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends

Suffused with fresh ambition and new lyrical nerve, the fourth Coldplay album is the very opposite of insipid. Could the world's politest rock band really be about to transcend itself?

Well done Coldplay. In typically power-to-the-people style, the new album comes with title options to engage two distinct constituencies - fans of both Ricky Martin and Philip Larkin. But that's only the start.

A fanfare of names heralds the album. During its construction, Coldplay listened to George Gershwin, My Bloody Valentine, Marvin Gaye, Blur, Jay-Z and the politically incorrect German industrial-metal sextet Rammstein - a group named after the site of an airshow disaster and who occasionally accompany their music with excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl's filmic celebration of the 1936 "Hitler Olympics".

Exhilarated by their diverse listening, and encouraged by co-producer Brian Eno, Coldplay aim for a multi-ethnic marvel - one that takes in African-styled orchestration, The Arcade Fire, tablas, Radiohead and flamenco handclaps. Meanwhile, the droning strings on the track Viva La Vida say they've been listening to The Velvet Underground's Venus In Furs - a song full of the kind of fetishistic desire you wouldn't naturally associate with Chris Martin. Then again, Gwyneth has been wearing some mind-boggling high heels recently.

It's all pretty intrepid stuff, certainly for a band whose last album sold ten million copies - ten million copies of what dissenters might see as the aural equivalent of a young man patrolling the high street in an Oxfam bib. A young man so nice, so availing, that when you signed up for a direct debit, it not only guaranteed an end to starvation in the Upper Volta but also brought forth free cream cakes and the offer to come round and tap-dance in your living room. This album seems a departure from Coldplay's hugely successful mix of the benign and the anodyne - the group who fuse altruism with all-singing-all-dancing compliance. "We thought, 'We can't possibly get any bigger,'" Chris martin has said. "'So let's just try to get better.'"

Eno co-produces the album with Markus Dravs, who worked on the last Arcade Fire album. But it's Eno who will be noted - the ex-Roxy Music elder with his "Oblique Strategies and free-thinking stylistic fusions. This is, after all, a man so renowned as the magus of the musical makeover that he inspired Half Man Half Biscuit to write a song called Eno Collaboration: "It's time for you Eno collaboration... I know Bono and he knows Ono and she knows Eno..." Thus enabled by Brian, are Coldplay merely alighting on one of rock's default settings? Will this be the kind of non-Western musical divertissement that has engaged wealthy musicians from Peter Gabriel to Damon Albarn?

I met Coldplay in 2000 for a magazine article - a few months before the appearance of their debut LP. They were clearly bright, friendly, unaffected young men. Also immediately apparent was the huge distance Chris Martin sat from rock's surly, self-conscious core. Happily, smilingly, he revealed the fantastically gauche names of the bands he'd been in before Coldplay - The Rockin' Honkies and The Red Rooster Boogie Band. He also recounted how he was a sometime Christian, and a man in possession of both a first-class degree in ancient-world studies and the Sting album Ten Summoner's Tales.

Chris's degree seems to have some relevance here. Certainly, his dissertation on ancient musical instruments - "lots of things made out of tortoiseshell" - showed an interest in non-Western musicology that predates indie-rock's current taste for Afro-funk. Exotic musical touches are manifest here. Unfamiliar tuned percussion percolates persuasively on the track Lost!. There are indeed flamenco handclaps on Cemeteries Of London. The track Viva La Vida is almost an invocation of otherness as the endless sand dunes David lean deployed in his Lawrence Of Arabia. Over chirruping polyrhythms, the strings sound like they're beaming in live from the souk. But, overall, the ethno-musical "old Eno" moments on the album are in the minority. There's another reason why this LP is much more interesting than its often insipid precursor, 2005's X&Y. And it's a reason that isn't voiced in alluring foreign tongues.

Edywn Collins once took a neat satirical look at the U2 school of concert oratory: "Hey, people, people can you hear me? / Can you hear me, because I want to ask you a question... / And the question I want to ask you is, people, can you hear me?" Coldplay's lyrics have often put them in a similar position - heard by everyone but saying nothing. This album isn't all unimpeachable - the track 42 combines leaden rock-funk with unalloyed Radiohead; Violet Hill is routine Oasis in rocking-ballad mode. But, for significant stretches, Chris Martin's words have a new artfulness, a new allusiveness which, in context, is striking.

The track Cemeteries Of London centres on propulsive acoustic guitars and archaic rhythms that somehow suggest madrigals and Charles II conducting the ceremony of the "touching for the king's evil". The lyrics maintain the mood, flying the listener across the capital city to look down on witches, religiosity and "Victorian ghosts". The narrative is mysterious, enigmatic and the better for it - moving through time and place with some of the looming unease of a Peter Ackroyd novel. With references to Jerusalem and "Roman cavalry choirs", the track Viva La Vida is narrated by some now diminished former despot: "I used to rule the world... Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes". Again, the when and why is left open, but that doesn't stop the song neatly, obliquely questioning the pursuit of power. In view of Martin's own position as plenipotent pop princeling, it can't help but have a nicely wry aspect. Compared with the bland reassurance of the last album's Fix You, these lyrics are almost as revolutionary as the image on the album sleeve - the to-the-barricades drama of Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty leading The People.

The lyrics to the track Viva La Vida also mention revolution - along with shattered windows. At the same time it's also the song that most powerfully restates Coldplay's tradition of unifying, joyously anthemic music. With its chimes and euphoric pulse, it's a yuletide smash in waiting - somehow encompassing Cliff, Jona Lewie's 1980 hit Stop The Cavalry and the news that, yes, Bono will be home for Christmas. Of course there are stony hearts who could never admit that the misty-eyed likes of Speed Of Sound can be moving things, a balm even. But, as Graham Greene told us, sentimentality is just a sentiment you don't share. Coldplay haven't lost their everyman melodic potency. The difference here is that when they get everyone singing along, they sometimes won't be singing words that could've been written by just about anyone.