Coldplay Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

[Capitol/Parlophone; 2008]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: “very heavy soft rock”
Others: U2, The Arcade Fire, Sigur Rós

The more you examine and deconstruct music's elements -- rhythm, melody, harmony, tonal color -- the more you'll understand the ways in which they can be arranged to, in a sense, "manipulate" the listener. Musicians know how certain sounds evoke certain emotional triggers, but in order for someone to get emotionally effected by those sounds, they depend on the listener to have internalized the culturally defined set of values that are associated with them. While many musicians subvert or appropriate these devices to varying degrees of subtlety, Coldplay's music absolutely hinges on them. The feeling of emotional exhaustion one might experience after one of their albums speaks both to Coldplay's ability to synthesize these cultural values and to the listener's own engagement with and acceptance of them. But like most forms of music that rely primarily on emotion or mood, pick apart Coldplay's musical elements and the music collapses on itself.

This dependency isn't necessarily a problem if you start with a solid foundation, but Coldplay have always relied on surface impressions and passive ears. Not only do they embrace the most bland clichés of rock, they subsume them within an overarching pretense. Their music is so bombastic and ego-ridden that it's not surprising that Chris Martin is consistently making headlines for spouting superlatives about his own band. His idealistic crowing is partly the cause of the venom spewed in their direction, but it doesn't help that their formula is so unbelievably played out. Yet, no matter how arguably middle-of-the-road their music is, the opinions about them are not: Coldplay are either loved or hated. Sure, they've sold 30 million albums, but that didn't stop The New York Times from labeling them "the most insufferable band of the decade" or Rolling Stone from titling a recent interview "The Jesus of Uncool." Coldplay are U2 without the nostalgic reverence.

Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is the band's fourth full-length, and it's most notable for being produced by Brian Eno. According to the Rolling Stone interview, Coldplay hired Eno because they wanted to be a "better" band (they now consider their first three albums part of a "trilogy" and refer to that incarnation of the band as "Oldplay"). To Eno, this meant not relying on the same musical tricks and lyrical tropes from their previous albums. "He helped us realize there’s a lot more stuff out there to steal," quoth Martin in another interview. And it's all mostly true. There's little of his precious falsetto, and the lyrics are certainly less disastrous this time around. Songs like "42," which includes an extremely Hail To the Thief-esque mid-section, show the band's mastery of the pop format, while, for better or worse, echoes of Sigur Rós and The Arcade Fire (Martin's current favorites) permeate throughout.

But these are superficial shifts, minor augmentations on top of the same core sound that converted Coldplay from band to brand. It's not the kind of "experimental" album their publicists would have you believe: Viva la Vida doesn't so much play with pop conventions as it extends the culturally dependent aspects of it, and that's one of its biggest problems. A lot of the daringness is transparent, such as the inclusion of Eastern-tinged strings ("Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant") or the haphazard stringing together of two essentially distinct songs into one. The latter happens on a few occasions, resulting in three 6-7 minute songs. In all cases, the second half of these songs are by far the album's highlights (two are delightfully ambient, one is reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine), but that they're simply duct-taped onto typical, going-through-the-motions rock shows that Coldplay simply weren't brave enough to let these songs stand on their own.

Coldplay's all about elongation this time around, and if you couldn't tolerate their dramatics before, Viva la Vida will do nothing for you. Don't get me wrong; to my ears, this is the group's strongest offering yet, but since this album is the same old naive romanticism theatrically propped on a pedestal, it's not really saying a lot. In fact, this tired romanticism can also be found in the cover art: featuring a cropped version of Eugène Delacroix's famous romantic painting, Liberty Leading The People, the art further encourages the wide-eyed optimism and individuality with which Coldplay seems dreamily enamored -- yet, confusingly, scribbled on top of the painting are the words "Viva la Vida" ("long live life"), a phrase used in a Frida Kahlo painting that comes from a realist tradition, essentially the opposite of Delacroix's romanticism. But it all meshes perfectly, because like this awkward juxtaposition on the cover, the music contained within is sending mixed messages.

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