Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Track By Track: Review of Coldplay's Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends

I have put this off for a few weeks because I wanted some of the hyperbole to die down. Much has been made of Coldplay's latest as a great leap forward for the band and their establishment is the pantheon of great rock bands. The use of producer Brian Eno (of U2 fame) and the focus of the music away from the more bombastic nature of "X and Y" seems to have paid off. Whether this was just a one off or a genuine advancement in their work is yet to be seen. But, despite the fact that many slag on them for their Radiohead-esque sound, the band still managed to craft something that after many listens does have tremendous staying power.

Track One -- Life In Technicolor
It is always tricky opening your record with a instrumental. Some might find it pretentious while others will call you artistic. I think the song sets just the right tone for the record as a whole. It has a slow build before hitting stride as Chris Martin does his best Sting impression.

This might be the darkest song the band has ever made. It has some great images and a sing along chorus that will play very well live. What struck me about this song is the use of the handclap drum beat and the great guitar work. Definitely an early highlight.

If Cemeteries set the tone for the record, then Lost is the juxtaposition. An upbeat organ driven track with another unusual drumbeat (is this Eno's true influence on the band, an expansion of percussion?) Lyrically the message of hope seems to be a direct rebuttal to the darkness of the record so far. This song raises the bar for the rest of the record and after several listens is easily my favorite.

Track Four -- 42
What starts out as a traditional Coldplay piano ballad takes a sharp left turn about a minute at a half in with the first real Radiohead nod. The guitar seems to have been lifted from the 'Head catalogue which is a little disappointing (I had hoped they had outgrown the need to openly ape other people's sounds). The song then fins a nice acoustic groove at the end as Martin intones "you didn't get to heaven but you made it close." which is a nice turn of phrase.

Track Five -- Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love
On my third trip around the album I cam to the conclusion that Coldplay was actually trying to make an noncommercial commercial album. Hidden songs, instrumentals and songs with odd breaks run throughout the disc. Case in point are these two separate songs that are placed together despite the fact they have no real relation to each other. I will be surprised if "Lovers in Japan" is not released as a single by itself, it is probably the most radio ready song on the album and a definite candidate for biggest live song on the record. The second half, the more subdued "Reign of Love" is another Coldplay ballad with a Beatles feel to it, which frankly left me underwhelmed.

Track Six -- Yes
I imagine when the band was putting this album together they were up very late one night and starting messing around with different sounds and percussion cadences and out popped "Yes". A lot has been written about the Middle Eastern flair on this track, and yes it is there, but I think it's a bit overplayed. What struck me more was Martin's voice is so deep, as if he is trying to consciously play against his falsetto image. This is a nice touch and makes the song much more ominous. Another hidden track plays out the tail end of this song, a My Bloody Valentine knockoff that would have played better as a b side rather than taking up space where another actual song could have been.

Track Seven -- Viva La Vida
The first of two title tracks is the second single (first single depending on how you classify singles these days). It's a great song and will be played for a long time alongside "Clocks" and "Yellow". It's the best of all that is this band. Martin is in his comfortable register singing about French Monarchs. The band is here but only on the fringes, darting in a out behind a string and piano crescendo. I have not taken this song out of any playlist since it came out, so my total plays on this tops 40 so far.

Track Eight -- Violet Hill
When this first came out I wrote of the similarity to Pink Floyd. Now as part of an album it is a song that sort of sticks out. It almost doesn't belong with the rest of the record. In retrospect it was an interesting choice as a lead single. It is so different from what we would expect and gives the guitar work a chance to really shine. If they are smart they open the concerts with this, it will be some much better live. I also think burying it towards the end of the record was a mistake. If you had placed this behind Cemeteries the record would have had a more natural emotional flow. Still a good song though.

Track Nine -- Strawberry Swing
One of the reviews I read of this song said that it's only a matter of time before this is the theme to some quirky romantic drama on TV or in theatres. I think that about some this Lennon-esque track. It's hummable but I think the band will regret it in the long run. I can't see it being one that will be a fan favorite but because it will be popular they will be obliged to include it in their eventual greatest hits. Hell, every band has one!!

Track Ten -- Death And All His Friends
For the first minute and half I hated this song. I dislike the Coldplay ballads, always have. Then the drum comes in and the song goes in a whole new direction as Martin yelps, "No, I don't want a battle from beginning to end, I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge, I don't want to follow death and all of his friends". It's almost as if he is trying to convince himself that everything will be okay after all. A nice way to end the record properly. There is a short coda that brings the music from "Life in Technicolor" back only with some lyrics about escaping and dreaming to close the record.

It's a really, really good album. I stop short of saying great because only time will tell how it shapes up in comparison to their entire catalogue. It could be their "Unforgettable Fire", the record that looking back was the beginning of their time as an artistic force. Or it could be a momentary step forward before a regression back to the original formula. I sincerely hope it's the former. I could get used to this new and improved Coldplay.

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