Coldplay – [Album]

Sunday, 31 August 2008

When Coldplay first appeared ten years ago sporting distinctly collegiate guitar tones and singing about the color yellow, every reasonable assumption was that Britain had won the global race to break a modestly intentioned, heart-on-its-sleeve (and hence non-threatening) indie band and negotiated a way to present the sound on the largest imaginable scale. They were huge from the word go, but amazingly they got even bigger; A Rush Of Blood To The Head did better than evade the sophomore slump, it re-established the heights to which any single band climb thought impossible for about a decade and X&Y  sustained that pinnacle of chart domination for a total of five years. To summarize, Coldplay has enjoyed a comfortable seat at the top of the pop heap; they are the first superstars of the new millennium.

…And now, four records in, they’ve taken the opportunity to do something a little different.

Death And All His Friends doesn’t fit the archetype that Coldplay spent the last decade building up at all. Unlike all of the band’s previous records, while singer Chris Martin’s piano is still a huge factor in songs like “Lovers In Japan/ Reign Of Love,” “Death And All His Friends” and “Violet Hill” and guitars factor into “Viva La Vida” and “Strawberry Swing” as they did on Parachutes, in all cases those aspects and instruments play a textural role that never steps up to hook listeners, but still brace the songs and color them to provide the emotional touchings for each. Without those sounds to provide the hooks, Viva La Vida becomes a songwriter’s record by default but, happily, Martin foresaw that possibility and so produced his most inspired and (more importantly) most thematically varied lyrics to date.

Where once Martin’s lyric sheets appeared as variations on a theme (the lyrics for “Clocks,” “Yellow” and  “Fix You”, while very well performed, are all interchangeable  as far as they each outline the process of making hard decisions and then resolutely living with the outcomes), the content of the songs here is almost perfectly divided between celebrations of life and reflections on mortality with the singer living and dying in the turns between. Martin revels in sweet, soft-spoken joy among echo-y, Edge-y guitars on “Cemeteries Of London,” and overtly hopes for change in “Lost!” (choice lyric: “Just because I’m losing doesn’t mean I’m lost – doesn’t mean I’ll stop”) while the heartbreak and loss he  laments  in “42” (“Those who are dead are not dead they’re just living in my head”) and “Violet Hill” is knee-buckling in its’ intensity. Yet, no matter which side of the mortal tack Coldplay takes on Viva La Vida, somehow the underlying sentiment is always very affirming and soothing; there is no sense that anything is going into the light or be plunged into darkness in any way other than metaphorically and while it might seem to some listeners like Martin is teetering on a knife blade here, the truth is that the band is simply examining both sides of the coin and letting listeners in on the epiphanies they find on each side.

Now that Coldplay has conquered the mainstream world, it only makes sense that they’d eventually challenge listeners with a different type of record. While the band has previously explored brilliantly white tones (Rush Of Blood…) and introspective dark ones (X&Y), Viva La Vida strikes a balance between both. It’s gratifying to know that a band like Coldplay isn’t limited to one side or the other and is able to make an inert shade of gray into a celebration.

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