‘People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis – you can’t trust people,’ said Superhans in the wonderful British comedy Peep Show. But with the obscenely titled Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, the UK’s biggest musical franchise will be hoping to win the respect of Superhanses everywhere, as well as pleasing their enormous mainstream following.
The aim seems to have been to create a brooding, mysterious record. Chris Martin’s spectacular toddler-strop during a recent Radio 4 interview may have been an attempt to establish this new image, but it’s hardly going to help matters when trying to maintain a decent reputation with both existing and potential listeners. Layering your record with obscure cultural and religious references might be quirky, but everybody knows enough about Coldplay to realise this may be just a little bit contrived. Still, Brian Eno sits behind the desk on production duty, and if there’s one person that can bridge the gap between the commercial and the experimental it’s Brian Eno. His influence is apparent right away, with a sweeping, ambient instrumental introduction that goes on just a little too long for comfort. But it doesn’t end here: his musical personality is in the arrangement, the effects and the structuring of practically the entire album, so much so that one begins to wonder whether he was effectively a fifth member of the band during the creation of Coldplay’s fourth LP.
The result is an interesting and charming yet unstable release that succeeds and fails in almost equal measures. This isn’t the magnum opus Coldplay will have no doubt been hoping for. The introduction of progressive elements to their pure-pop sound is a brave move, but they fall into a gaping chasm in the middle of the spectrum, being too heavy for most Radio 1 listeners yet too lightweight for those really into their experimental music. Instead of coming across as a courageous step towards a distinctive new style, Viva La Vida… sounds like an extremely self-aware amalgamation of numerous traditional genres. The issue this creates is that the majority of the record might as well be ‘Coldplay plays this’ or ‘Coldplay plays that’. Cemeteries of London has a melody straight out of traditional English folk, and single Violet Hill is about as generically ‘prog’ as you can get, but Martin’s voice and Jonny Buckland’s guitar work are so distinctly Coldplay that it’s impossible to forget who you’re listening to.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Coldplay have always excelled at writing fantastically crafted pop songs, and shades of this talent shine through in a number of places. Lovers in Japan and Yes serve up delicious slices of pop goodness. Elsewhere, co-title track Viva La Vida – you’ll have heard it on the iTunes ads – is the song that bridges the gap between X&Y and the band’s new offering and, given its style and melodic quality, it’s somewhat surprising that this wasn’t the lead single. Perhaps it’s because, despite the beautiful, sweeping strings and epic chorus, the pace never develops beyond a repetitive stomping rhythm beneath an uninventive verse-chorus structure. This, unfortunately, is a theme throughout the album: its memorable moments are parts of songs, as opposed to any entire pieces. The closing piano of Violet Hill may be hauntingly dark and gothic-tinged, but the preceding three minutes are adequate yet nondescript. This album’s The Scientist/Fix You ends proceedings this time, in the form of the other title track Death and All His Friends, and despite an incredibly promising opening it comes to an abrupt conclusion as soon as it gets going. There are also a couple of occasions where two songs seem to have been thrown together into one track for the sake of longevity – there doesn’t seem to be much reason for Coldplay to write disjointed seven-minute tunes, let alone for them to be placed adjacently on the album. Notably, some of the finer passages on show are those that evoke memories of classic, Parachutes-era Coldplay, but Viva La Vida… seems at times so committed to moving the band’s style forward that it holds back from developing any of these older sounds. Nothing is stripped down for more than a few bars at a time, but it’s generally during these quieter sections that the undoubtable quality of this collection of songs really shines through.
And it is a good record. The disappointment stems not from any lack of songwriting ability – Coldplay have that in bucketloads. Instead, the root of the problem is that Viva La Vida… always feels like a considered effort to write a particular type of record, instead of a natural progression of the band’s sound. It’s a brave attempt at something new, and it’s an album of undeniable intelligence and quality that reveals itself a little more with each subsequent listen. It’ll sell millions without much effort, but with Viva La Vida Coldplay risk losing the attention of the masses, while giving Superhans yet another opportunity to poke fun.