Your songs are too long. And you’re too repetitive, and you use the same tricks too much, and big things aren’t necessarily good things, and you use the same sounds too much, and your lyrics are not good enough.
So, apparently, went Brian Eno’s rather brutal critique of Coldplay, delivered as part of his appeal to produce their new record, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (the title alone proves Eno right on at least one count), which he did indeed produce, as announced in the liner notes with the statement “Sonic landscapes by Brian Eno,” which, if he wouldn’t mind my critiquing him for a second, is incredibly fucking pretentious. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin merrily recounts his sonic landscaper’s gibes in the new Rolling Stone‘s cover story, sounding awfully cowed and sheepish for the guy whose band is charged with single-handedly saving the blockbuster-starved music industry: cowed by his competition (“I would still give my left ball to write anything as good as OK Computer“), cowed by his dizzying celebrity (“If your wife went out with Brad Pitt, you’d want to prove yourself, you know what I mean?”), cowed by the moderate backlash that greeted the band’s last record, 2005’s X&Y (“We were bigger than we were good”). On that last point, the radness of “Fix You” excepted, it’s tough to argue with him, or Eno, or the need for Vida to either perfect the band’s titanically sincere arena-rock mold or blow it up for good.
And indeed, the record’s first two and a half minutes—a throwaway intro called “Life in Technicolor”—are genuinely thrilling, a brief (and lyric-less!) master class in the tricks, the sounds, the repetition, the bigness that aided Coldplay’s rise to power. Eno’s sweetly pastoral synth landscape sets the tone, and soon it all piles on: the jangly electric-guitar riff, the cheerful acoustic to sketch out the simple chords, the rumbling bass and drums to give those chords muscle and propulsion, the ecstatically clanging piano, a few joyful oh-oh-oh‘s from Martin just to remind us who’s in charge here—a steady and true and exhilarating 150-second rise in volume and intensity that’s pure “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and if it doesn ‘t quite blossom into a full, magnificent anthem the way “Streets” did, the point is made. But part of that point is that this is Coldplay’s instinct—go for the gold, the jugular, the fist-pumping knockout—and most of the rest of Vida aims to subvert it.
Which doesn’t mean it’s too terribly difficult. The usual specters (U2 and Radiohead, mostly) hang over it, but Vida‘s true genesis is the Arcade Fire. Though not a “concept album” in any meaningful way, its tone throughout is soaring, portentous, desperate, elliptically political, and widescreen in terms of both geography and emotion: East and West, life and death. “Cemeteries of London” gives way to “Lovers in Japan.” From the onset, Martin’s hunting big game: “God is in the houses/And God is in my head!” he wails on “Cemeteries”; “Those who are dead are not dead/They’re just livin’ in my head,” he mews a few tracks later on “42.” Major motifs: snow and rooftops. Major theme: Life During Wartime, though that’s often abstract, and blessedly so. (Martin is far from embarrassing, but Eno is not incorrect that Coldplay’s lyrics, in terms of the music’s articulate grandiosity, aren’t quite good enough: Bono probably would’ve reached a more profound conclusion than “Soldiers, you’ve got to soldier on.”)
As to Eno’s simplest and truest declaration—that every single Coldplay song feels like it’s 10 minutes long, even if it’s actually only, like, three—Vida tries to solve the problem by breaking up the few longer tracks into jolting mini-suites. (Hey, “Clocks” was great and all, but that piano riff just went on forever. ) So “42” starts as a soft, lonely piano ballad, dead-ends into a harsh, knotty, Kraut-prog jam, then barrels into a discordantly peppy pop-tart chorus (“You didn’t get to heaven, but you made it close!”). And “Yes” starts as a slow, ominous rumble (Martin dropping his cavernous croon down to Crash Test Dummy depths) with spry klezmer strings slicing overhead, then abruptly bursts into a gauzy My Bloody Valentine shoegaze daydream, Martin’s normally sleek falsetto squeaking amid swirling guitar-hero blasts, as though he actually did give his left ball to write something as good as OK Computer and got ripped off.
This approach guarantees that you won’t get too bored, and the band’s old tricks have renewed power when deployed in smaller doses: a small piano-and-falsetto conclusion redeems the plodding lead single, “Violet Hill.” Eno, meanwhile, busts his ass to actually justify that sonic-landscape business. The strident strings that drive “Viva La Vida” confidently push the tune to rousing iPod-commercial heights, and “Lost!” is a deep and immersive and startling organ-and-handclaps march: He builds the cathedral, Martin brings the sermon. But though the result is biblical, it’s not neon-biblical: What makes the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler so effective at Life During Wartime shtick is that he howls and quavers as though he’s actually dying, as though his cathedral’s under siege and the organ’s only there to drown out the gunfire. Martin’s too sweet, too soothing for this wetwork. He tries hard to imagine how it feels to feel like you’re dying, but he can’t evoke it. Closing track “Death and All His Friends” tries to work itself into a climactic frenzy, cranking up the speed and intensity while trying out one of those life-and-death group shout-alongs that Butler leads so effortlessly, but Coldplay’s giving up their huge home-field advantage here—you don’t best your rivals by aping them. And when the pastoral Eno flourishes that started Vida off so promisingly return for a quick coda, Martin reverts back to his suavely crooning self, but blows it with his first four words: “And in the end . . . . ” Bam, you’re thinking Abbey Road, and while Vida is far from a dog, it’s just another unflattering comparison that the record itself needlessly invites—an extremely overconfident way to handle a crisis of confidence. Big isn’t necessarily good, no, and bigger isn’t necessarily better.