By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
A funny thing happened to Coldplay on the way to the Insipidity Hall of Fame: Rock's most banal big band suddenly veered off the middle of the road.
The British band's fourth album, the ponderously titled "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends," represents a sharp left turn. It's an attempt at doing something arty, something surprising, as Coldplay enlists noted studio experimentalist Brian Eno to announce an end to all that mundane predictability.
While the very idea of turning to Eno is predictable itself -- particularly given his production history with Coldplay heroes U2 -- the gambit pays off: "Viva la Vida" is Coldplay's most compelling and invigorating album by a wide margin, even if it's hardly avant-garde. (It's still a Coldplay album, after all.)
If anything, "Viva" tends to sound like a smartly crafted synthesis of some of Coldplay's favorites, from U2 and Radiohead to Arcade Fire. In fact, Markus Dravs, who engineered Arcade Fire's acclaimed "Neon Bible," even worked as a co-producer with Eno, suggesting that Coldplay's current mantra may well be: If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em.
EMI, the floundering conglomerate for which Coldplay records, is relying on "Viva" to give the company a bottom-line boost, but it's hardly the most commercially friendly album in the Coldplay catalogue. The band has mostly done away with its sonic signature -- those wistful, soaring soft-rock anthems filled with ringing guitars, treacly piano and arena-size sweep. Missing -- on purpose, presumably -- are the sort of lush melodies and outsize hooks that helped make Coldplay a hit in dentists' offices worldwide.
There's no shortage of majestic moments on "Viva," but it's a quiet kind of majesty. It's a meditative collection of textured, occasionally murky songs featuring shifty arrangements, slippery melodies and atypical Coldplay instrumentation (dissonant guitar on "42," slightly detuned piano on "Lovers in Japan," Middle Eastern percussion on "Yes," pipe organ on the swaying, spirituality-seeking "Lost!"). The most triumphal track is iTunes jingle "Viva la Vida," which pulses but never quite soars; the album's other single, "Violet Hill," is a dark, Lennonesque stomp.
Where Coldplay once showcased frontman Chris Martin's straight-ahead sensitive-guy-with-a-broken-heart lyrics and his fragile and overwrought falsetto, the 31-year-old tabloid fave is writing more obliquely here about death and God, love and war, loss and fulfillment. He's singing lower, too -- as if he suddenly discovered the joys of loose-fitting pants.
The album boldly opens with a near-instrumental, "Life in Technicolor," which unfurls not unlike U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." It begins quietly, with synthesizers, before the Enoesque layering begins (guitar strum, then bass, then drums, then soaring "ohhh-ohhhhs" in the background); while it hints at an impending flyover, though, the song never arrives at the climax, instead coming to an abrupt end. It's the first of "Viva's" many surprises.
Consider "42," which sounds like classic Coldplay at first, with piano and strings and Martin singing earnestly and delicately in his upper register ("Time is so short and I'm sure/There must be something more"). But just past the 90-second mark, Jonny Buckland sprays the song with a blast of cacophonous guitar. Then, out of the beautiful noise emerges a sweet melody and Martin singing about ghosts and heaven.
On "Yes," Martin sings in a low drone, even descending rather than going off on one of those skyward runs, when he arrives at a key couplet: "God, only God knows I'm trying my best/But I'm just so tired of this loneliness." In comes a sawing fiddle before Martin begins to sing in a nervy voice. Then, at the four-minute mark, Coldplay delivers a song within a song: Hidden track "Chinese Sleep Chant," a sludgy wall of effects-laden guitar, behind which Martin's voice is buried. He sounds disembodied, ghostly, completely incomprehensible. It's brilliant '90s shoegaze flashback, even if it's laughably derivative.
It's one of three two-parters on the album, whose 10 tracks feature 13 songs. Woozy ballad "Lovers in Japan" and the hymnal "Reign of Love" are billed as a single track, and there's a hidden song at the end of mushy album-closer "Death and All His Friends."
So very art-rock. Ditto the title, taken in part from a Frida Kahlo painting, and the album's cover: Eugène Delacroix's 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People," which depicts the French Revolution.
In theory, this is a scary proposition, as "arty" can be code for self-indulgent. But "Viva" is a relatively tight, focused set, with a running time of just over 45 minutes. Even better, it's full of intrigue, which is something I never thought I'd say about an album by a band that previously specialized in music for medium-level dull people.
See you further on up the road, Coldplay. Hopefully not in the middle.
DOWNLOAD THESE:"42," "Violet Hill," "Yes"/"Chinese Sleep Chant," "Lost!"