First Impressions of Coldplay's Viva la Vida
Coldplay's "Chinese Sleep Chant" is one of the more blatant My Bloody Valentine rips I've ever heard on a major-label album, all heavily processed guitar-swirl and Chris Martin singing in a glassy girl falsetto through tons of reverb. The words are hard to make out, but it turns out they're actually just stuff like "fall asleep" and "sleep satisfied" repeated over and over, mantralike. The song could easily be self-conscious parody of shoegaze, at least if anyone was willing to put enough money and craft into recording a My Bloody Valentine parody. As it is, though, it's basically just a rip-off, and it's a fairly credible one at that. And if Coldplay was ever going to straight-up bite My Bloody Valentine, now would be the time. They started out as a pleasant and earnest hybrid of Jeff Buckley and Bends-era Radiohead, but by their second album, they were doing celestial big-budget new-age waiting-room music better than anyone else on the planet, finding ways to enfold dizzy house-music textures and proggy sweep into their low-impact exhalations without awkwardly stapling them on. But Coldplay takes forever between albums, and their last album, the unbelievably meh X&Y, basically proved that they wouldn't be able to get away with rewriting "Clocks" any longer. So of course Viva La Vida is the moment where they want to be taken seriously, and they've used just about every bell and whistle at their disposal to reach that goal. That means they hired Brian Eno to produce, they found themselves someone to play kettle drums, and, yup, they recorded a shockingly faithful My Bloody Valentine bite. None of this surprises me. But this is an interesting time for their art-move, since a whole lot of people are counting on Coldplay to save their jobs.
So far, the plan seems to be working pretty well. Viva la Vida has already sold a ton of prerelease copies on iTunes, and its two singles, the title track especially, are pretty well entrenched in the upper reaches of the iTunes download charts. But I'm skeptical whether this MBV-biting iteration of Coldplay is going to keep any thin-ice music execs off the streets. The last time a prominent sugar-rush rock band attempted a take-us-serious move like this (Sam's Town, by my estimation), the result bricked spectacularly. But at least I can say with some confidence that Viva la Vida is a better album than Sam's Town. What's striking about the new Coldplay album is how fundamentally Coldplay the thing is. They pull out plenty of tricks to distance themselves from past works, Chris Martin even going so far as to sing in his lower register every once in a while. But even if Martin has been talking up the Arcade Fire in every interview he gives these days, the main reference point seems to be late-80s U2, right down to the constant flare-ups of Edge-esque guitar-pings. "Cemeteries of London" seems to be about ghosts. "Lost!" is probably about not really knowing what you're doing and fumbling along anyway. The title track is definitely sung from the point of view of a deposed tyrant who knows he's not going to heaven, and it's fun to hear Martin cooing about feeling the fear in his enemies' eyes even if he'll never be able to conjure convincing bloodthirst. And considering that Coldplay basically came up as the best in a particular school of depressive British guitar bands with clear Radiohead aspirations, it's oddly reassuring to see them come full circle with "42," which, with its skittering drums and expansively slashing guitars, may be the clearest Radiohead homage they've ever written.
I can't quite tell whether Viva la Vida works because of its arty flourishes or in spite of them; it's probably some combination of the two. Coldplay are way too professional to fly completely off the rails. Even if they were trying to rip off Wolf Eyes rather than MBV, they'd still come out with something epically goopy and stately. In anyone else's hands, the African hand-drum percussion and droney organ and stomp-clap drums from "Lost!" might come across as turgid experimental moves, but Coldplay use them to build to exactly the same sort of oceanic chorus that they always pull off. And even if Viva la Vida has no transcendent moment on the level of "Clocks" or "Yellow," it still has a whole lot of tremendously satisfying songs that build from restrained sigh to skyward wail. And Brian Eno is more than an art-pop status symbol; he's also a producer who understands more about effectively layering sound than just about anyone else, and the rushing pianos on "Lovers in Japan" just kill me. None of it really means anything, but all of it thoroughly satisfies anyway. If this and Tha Carter III both end up doing monster numbers, this could be the summer than miasmic art-gurgles saved the music business.
Voice review: James Hunter on Coldplay's X&Y Voice review: Emma Pearse on Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head Voice review: Barry Walters on Coldplay's Parachutes
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