I feel like once the dust settles and we all look back on this decade with the infinitely-useful advantage of hindsight, we will see Coldplay as the definitive band of the 2000s. Now, by “definitive” I don’t mean “best” or even “biggest” – to me, they just exemplify a generation of musicians that, despite every opportunity given to them, are incapable of progress. We’re living in a decade where it seems like almost every major innovation in rock ‘n roll happened light-years ago, where recognized revolutionaries like the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, and even Nirvana couldn’t feel any more distant. Coldplay, a band that has has somehow become the biggest rock band of the decade by delivering low-key rock determined to not step on a single person’s toes, exemplify this distance for me.
I used to think Coldplay were simply afraid of change, or at least apathetic towards it; X&Y, which was not only a shameless retread but a retread that took three damned years to record, proved that notion. But their newest album Viva La Vida makes me think that they just can’t do it; they will always be Coldplay, no matter what they do. They will always be a band designed for the 2000s, a calculated mixture of the hippest art bands (Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Roxy Music) and the hippest arena bands (Pink Floyd, U2, the Verve) mushed into a fine paste. Since the beginning of the decade they’ve served as a palatable alternative to more adventurous bands: if Radiohead’s Kid A was too cold, there was always Parachutes‘s inviting melancholy; if the Flaming Lips’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was too spunky, there was always the quietly epic Rush of Blood to the Head; if the Arcade Fire’s Funeral was a bit too emotional for you, there was always the staid X&Y. And because they’re now the biggest rock band in the world, their dulling piano-driven mopefests have become the sound of the decade, one that’s been co-opted by bands both reputable (Keane, Snow Patrol) and flat-out obnoxious (James Blunt, Daniel Powter). Playing boring, vaguely-hooky rock music is now something that can fill stadiums, and it’s all thanks to Coldplay.
But maybe I’m being unfair. I don’t hate Coldplay – I’m indifferent towards them, to be sure, but they don’t inspire hatred (frustration, maybe, but not hatred). They aren’t terrible musicians by any stretch of the imagination; I don’t care for Parachutes or X&Y, but I’ll still swear by “Yellow” and almost all of Rush of Blood. Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking, but when it’s 2:30 in the morning and I need a good sad-sack piano ballad, I’ll put on “In My Place” or “Warning Sign” and dip effortlessly into sweet memory. Rush of Blood stands out to me because it seems like the one moment that Coldplay did it completely right – the songs are pleasant, melodic, and epic without overdoing things. X&Y twisted that formula and turned its pleasant qualities into obnoxious, silly misgivings; “Speed of Sound” and “Talk” were just derivative, and “Fix You” was just stupid. I know it’s fashionable nowadays to rip on X&Y, but in honesty it depressed me not just because it was a retread, but it sold so goddamn well and became such a huge hit that it was unavoidable. To me, it was an indication that rock ‘n roll had nowhere else to go.
Thankfully, Viva La Vida avoids that conceit. While in my eyes anything would be more interesting than X&Y, and while Coldplay will always sound like Coldplay no matter what they do, I will give them credit for at least trying to shake things up. Hiring Brian Eno to produce them, while a totally obvious move (not only has he produced their idols U2, but they’ve always been vaguely Eno-influenced in the past), is a good move because Eno is a good producer. He’s a guy that seems to understand sound and knows how to focus a band (hell, if he can do it for Paul Simon he can do it for Coldplay); not only that, but he has a knack at crafting soundscapes that are alluringly exotic yet melodic. Viva‘s opener “Life In Technicolor” exudes the Eno influences right from the get-go, featuring a mess of electronics that lead into a sweet instrumental piano echo. Even Eno’s flirtations with world music seep in here, such as on the swirling “Strawberry Swing” and the tribal “Lost!”. Coldplay’s also fudging around with structure – the album has a thematic unity missing from most of their previous works, opening and ending with an instrumental and featuring songs that complement each other with electronic allure (definitely an Eno touch). Where Rush of Blood and X&Y felt like a bunch of Coldplay songs thrown together, the songs on Viva La Vida seem to seep into one another comfortably.
Not only that, but the songs here are not just better than X&Y, they’re genuinely more interesting in structure, featuring multi-part suites and a cool minor-key atmosphere. One of my favorites here, “42,” starts off as a typical Coldplay piano dirge but gives way to a prog-electro-guitar swell and ends with a poppy, zippity melody featuring Chris Martin singing “You thought you might be a ghost / you didn’t get to heaven but you made it close.” “Cemeteries of London” starts off slow until an acoustic guitar kicks it into gear. “Lovers In Japan” shuffles along pleasantly until it turns into “Reign Of Love,” a reflective piano ballad. And “Yes” turns from a loopy, dark Chris Martin bellow into a fast-paced electric guitar workout. It’s a method that works; where X&Y‘s songs just kind of sat there, Viva La Vida‘s feel active and alive. I’m also fond of the singles here: while “Violet Hill” is suitably dark if not remarkably exciting, I very much like the title track, featuring a swath of strings and cute Chris Martin lyrics from the perspective of a king. “For some reason I can’t explain / I know St. Peter will call my name / never an honest world / but that was when I ruled the world,” Martin sings, maybe a knowing wink at his rock star status. It’s an overblown song to be sure, but its melody shines; despite their politely bland image, Coldplay know how to use melody.
My biggest gripe with Viva La Vida isn’t even with the music, but more with its packaging. Coldplay seemed to advertise this album as some kind of radical, out-of-left-field statement, slapping the thing with that insufferable title and using a revolutionary Delacroix painting for its cover artwork. Maybe they’re just giving in to their era, playing like the Killers and My Chemical Romance by making Viva look like a concept album when it isn’t at all (or at least doesn’t deserve to be). Chris Martin told Entertainment Weekly that he’s “slightly terrified” of Viva because “we’ve thrown away all our tricks. The truth is, we tried to find new ones.” But if Coldplay is really afraid about what they’ve unleashed with Viva, an album that does things slightly differently but is by no means a major leap forward, it just goes to show what a staid band they are. It doesn’t help that the album tends to tread ground other bands have utilized better – “Life In Technicolor” reminds me too much of the Flaming Lips’ “Sleeping on the Roof,” and “Lovers In Japan” is a blatant take on the Arcade Fire’s “Haiti” (a band that, by all means, deserve the “biggest band in the world” title much more than Coldplay). To enjoy Viva La Vida, you’ve got to look beyond the silly packaging and take it in for what it is – a melodically pleasing album that is much better than X&Y but isn’t going to change anybody’s life anytime soon.
I’ll always be ambivalent about Coldplay. Yeah, they’ve turned a dull form of rock music into a commercial juggernaut, but songs like “Yellow” and “Clocks” will forever live in my subconscious. I can’t deny that. This new album does put them on the right track; where X&Y did nothing but bring me down, Viva La Vida breathes some life into the Coldplay formula. They will never be a band I can unashamedly embrace – not when there are so many better, more compelling bands out there – but I appreciate that they aren’t resting on their laurels and delivering the same ‘ol same ‘ol. Coldplay haters won’t be converted though, and never will be; even if they turned into a punk-circus band with Chris Martin gurgling his vocals through a meat grinder, they would still sound like Coldplay. Take that for what you will.