My relationship with Coldplay as a music listener has always been complicated. Though they’re arguably the biggest band of this decade, my conflicted affection for them had less to do with what they were and more what I thought they could be. And this has been very difficult to explain to my music geek peers.
Let me do my best, though. In my year-in-review post last December, I lamented the lack of great pop records being made this decade. For all my faux-indieisms and professed admiration for obscurity, there’s something in the shared experience that has always drawn me towards the big and the bold, towards albums that manage to be both poignant and populist and echo a time where the line between mainstream and alternative was not so clearly drawn. And sadly, these albums are few and far between these days.
In Coldplay, though, I found hope. I picked up Parachutes on a whim back in 2001 and, “Don’t Panic” aside, it’s a pretty forgettable record, although it certainly struck a chord with a lot of people at the time. Still, all it would have taken was a mediocre follow-up and Coldplay would have been the first James Blunt of the millennium. But there was something different about A Rush of Blood to the Head. All those ill-advised Radiohead comparisons Coldplay faced faded away as it became clear where the band’s ambitions truly lied. They wanted to be the next U2: the biggest, best pop band in the world.
And I became convinced they could be.
The problem was that, other than my gut intuition and a few impressive singles, I really didn’t have much evidence to back up my confidence in Coldplay. For every great track on Rush of Blood (“Politik,” “The Scientist,” “Clocks”) there was a stale, boring ballad to match. Plus, it was the start of Chris Martin’s transition from balladeer to insufferable wanker. And then X&Y provided even more ammunition against the band as they tried to expand their sound and, lacking the skills to do so, retraced their steps with a few background noises spliced in between. Even its high points (“Talk,” “White Shadows”) haven’t aged well.
So how does Viva la Vida fit into my Coldplay neurosis? Simple: after considering the band a guilty pleasure for so long, I finally have a Coldplay album that’s just a straight-up genuine pleasure; 45-minutes of pop music that may not convince those who’ve doubted my Coldplay confidence to become believers, but at least they may stop making fun of me (or at least, make fun of me less)
What changed? It’s not like the songs have gotten significantly better all by themselves, and the band members remain competent-but-hardly-spectacular musicians who really aren’t pushing any boundaries. And Chris Martin still prefers platitudes to poetry and continues to deliver some cringe-worthy lyrics. So as much as I hate the idea of the producer as a svengali figure, I’ve got to credit Brian Eno with finally starting to realize Coldplay’s ambition in glorious fashion.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of the pairing when I first heard about it; I know that Coldplay are hardly the most original lads in the world, but this wasn’t just taking a page from the U2 playbook but literally copying it word-for-word. But what Eno brings to Coldplay actually reminds me more of his work with the Talking Heads, in that the name of the game here is rhythm. Gone are the staid percussion of Coldplay records past; now, a wonderful assortment of beats, toms and chords breathe life into even the record’s more boring songs. He’s also dramatically expanded the number of instruments that drive the songs along: strings, tribal drums, piano, all working together to give the album motion track after track.
Eno has also allowed the band to deconstruct their writing process, breaking away from staid verse-chorus-verse-chorus-close formula. There’s songs with multiple parts spliced together, songs that grow and descend, and songs that twist and turn in sequence. Sometimes it gets a bit ridiculous – why the heck doesn’t “Chinese Sleep Chant” just have its own track? – but it works more often than not. And unlike on the stale, repetitive X&Y, Eno actually succeeds in expanding the band’s sound dramatically while also reeling it in at the same time. Gone are the excessive overdubs, the piles of guitars piled upon more guitars, replaced by instruments that sound huge and vast on their own with background flourishes to match.
It’s not a perfect ride: “Yes” never really clicks, and the album-closing “Death and all His Friends” isn’t among the record’s most memorable moments. But the highlights far outweigh the lowlights. There’s the stunningly beautiful “Lovers in Japan,” with a piano riff that dances through the speakers, paired with the subdued “Reign of Love” where Eno provides some of his best sonic accompaniment to the stripped-down piano ballad. The one-two punch of singles “Viva la Vida” and “Violet Hill,” the former as anthemic as the latter is raw. The masterfully mixed-up “42.” The rolling, swaggering “Strawberry Swing.”
This may be the first Coldplay disc where the non-singles won’t fade into haze after a couple of weeks with the album. It feels like a record – It flows, it shapes, it turns. But more importantly, Viva la Vida is the first Coldplay record that sounds like I’ve always thought Coldplay could sound, the album where their product finally starts to catch up to their ambitions. I’m not sure they’re all the way there yet, as this feels more like their Unforgettable Fire than their Josuha Tree. But for the first time, they sound like a band deserving of the title of biggest band in the world; nowhere near the best, mind you, but good enough to justify their popularity.
Viva la mainstream, viva la world domination, viva la Coldplay.