Producer: Markus Dravis, Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins, Rik Simpson
Coldplay is a band that took me an abnormally long time to understand how I felt about them. For me, they flitted back and forth between a serious interest and a poorly disguised guilty pleasure for years before their second latest album finally released in 2008. That album, abbreviated Viva la Vida (Long Live Life) and sporting artwork from revolutionary France in 1830, cemented Coldplay as a band that I support as one of my artists of interest, if only that level of interest was far below others like Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, or Nas. With Viva La Vida (VLV), Brian Eno and a host of other producers whipped the soft rock alternative band back into shape and out of the cheesy, sappy haze of their ‘X & Y‘ (2008) days. That 2008 record matched the quality heights of their album from 2005, A Rush of Blood to the Head, yet thankfully sounded different than anything they had tried before.
Coldplay will never shed their blessed/cursed image of an “effeminate”-sounding soft rock band, nor will they ever seem overtly “tough” or brutish. But that’s OK. The band, originally little more than one of many Radiohead clones born out of the bizarre musical time period that was the late ’90’s, have come a long way and finally etched out a corner of the rock universe that they can definitely call their own. It’s nothing huge or quite revolutionary, but it’s a place of quality songwriting and something that speaks toward the mantle of “being yourself,” which is what rock ‘n roll is all about. If nothing else, that is something that Coldplay has succeeded at over their 17-year career — being themselves, for better or for worse.
In any case, let’s talk about VLV. Anyone can tell that hiring the likes of Eno was a smart decision after giving the record one playthrough. Eno’s insistence on diversifying and expanding their sound is undoubtedly what made VLV work more than anything else. Although Coldplay resisted when they needed that pop hook (“Viva la Vida” [the titular track]), for the most part, Coldplay’s expansion into a more worldly soundscape made the record a success. VLV really sounds like a trip around the world, in fact. The wide range of instruments and musical styles that VLV encompasses gives the record a sort of global theme, and these diverse sounds coalesce well with the album’s themes of love, life, death and war all over planet earth. Speaking of those themes, not only do the lyrics wrap up VLV in a decidedly well focused conceptual frame, but the lyrics featured on VLV are also some of Coldplay’s best to date. This time around, our soft rockers feel deep and mature, not dripping in soap opera cheese. The toning down of Chris Martin’s falsetto helped with this as well.
Track by track, VLV fairs well. The album opens with a strong instrumental, “Life in Technicolor,” which features a catchy yet deep hook that reels you in. Why on earth “Life in Technicolor II” from the band’s Prospekt’s March EP didn’t make it onto the album is beyond me, but the record remains strong despite its absence. “Cemeteries of London” continues the energy from “Technicolor” with a powerful sound that feels reminiscent of a church choir performance (part of the album was recorded in a church). “Lost!” carries thundering drums and claps, alluding to tribal music that fits into a concise hook. “42” speaks of a haunting religious message that turns optimistic by the end, utilizing both acoustic and electronic elements effectively.
Next, are two “double-tracks” that can be hit or miss, depending on your taste. “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love” is strong for its first half, featuring a well utilized honkey-tonk piano that feels decidedly more like Coldplay songs of old, but in a good way. The “Reign of Love” portion of the track feels like Coldplay songs of old, but in a bad (i.e. cheesy) way. “Yes,” also divided into two halves, features some potent lower tones from Martin that mix well with the cocktail of funky percussion and sublime acoustic guitar riffs. This song also examines some of the darker, more animalistic manifestations of love and desire.
The titular track speaks of overthrown kings and connects well with the overarching themes of social revolution, and the full orchestra sounds bring out the epic feel of the lead single. However, the album’s real standout is the angry, almost punk track that channels energy from the opposite perspective of the peasant. “Violet Hill” features some great anger and some great lyrical content. “When the future’s architectured by a carnival of idiots on show, you better lie low,” and “It was a long and dark December/When the the banks became cathedrals/And the fog became God/Priests clutched onto Bibles/Hollowed out to fit their rifles/And the Cross was held aloft,” and finally, “I don’t wanna be a soldier/ That the captain of some stinking ship would stow far below,” speak to the underdog in all of us that feels used and abused by the system. These angry, revolutionary themes are VLV at its most raw. The only disappointing part of “Violet Hill” is the lackluster, unimaginative guitar solo that could have been great if only the band had paid it more mind.
“Strawberry Swing,” whose themes and lyrics are expanded upon in “Life in Technicolor II,” is an about face that shows Coldplay at their most optimistic, and even incorporates various Afro-pop elements into its structure. “Death and All His Friends” is nothing extraordinary compared to the rest of the album, but it’s lyrical content elegantly sums up the unifying themes presented in VLV.
In other words, there really isn’t a bad song on VLV, other than “Reign of Love.” That’s a really good selling point for the album. The problem is that there isn’t an amazing track on the album either, other than the aforementioned “Violet Hill,” which still manages to frustrate given the massive missed potential with it’s “guitar solo.” In light of these facts, it’s hard to judge or sum up the record with a score, but I give the album props for being arguably Coldplay’s most consistent to date. It rarely amazes, but it never lets you down either, so in that sense, the album works like a charm. VLV rides highest on its worldly themes and diverse sound, and showcases Coldplay’s talents at their gentlest best.
Standout Tracks: “Violet Hill”