COLDPLAY > Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Label: CAPITOL/EMI
[RATING: 4]

Are you a Coldplaya or a Coldplaya hater?

That’s the question everyone must look into their hearts and ask themselves eventually. Coldplay are a polarizing band who provoke violent reactions, and you’re either with them or against them. If you read their interviews, you’ll find that even they are shaky on whether they’re the best band in the world, or merely a facsimile.

Lead singer Chris Martin walks a thin line between self-aggrandizing and self-depreciating, just as his band straddles the divide between art and pop.

Coldplay’s first two albums, 2000’s Parachutes and 2002’s A Rush of Blood To the Head offered a happy marriage of Radiohead’s production aesthetics and U2’s melodic populism. They managed to avoid a sophomore slump but stumbled with their third album, 2005’s X&Y, which featured transparently thin lyrics and recycled melodies. That album sold 10 million copies. And the haters licked their lips…

Coldplay albums have become the equivalent of summer blockbusters, designed to titillate and move as many listeners as possible. For Vida La Vida, the band enlists producers Brian Eno (U2, David Bowie) and Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Björk) to help sharpen their impact and expand their sound. On several songs, they morph into the Electric Coldplay Orchestra, ensconcing themselves in ethnic-sounding strings and soaring atmospherics. A band that had no problem sounding good before now sounds even better.

Vida La Vida begins with an ambient, celestial instrumental track, which reappears later as the song “The Escapist.” “Cemeteries of London” comes cloaked in intrigue, a tour around nighttime London with Edge-like, laser beam guitars. “God is in the houses and God is in my head,” sings Martin. An over-sized beat and peals of church organ introduce “Lost!” where Martin finds rivers hard to cross, while every door he tries is locked. The brief ballad “Reign of Love” unfolds over rolling piano chords and has a flavor akin to Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”

“Vida la Vida” is their most hateable track, because it aspires to be the one with the most appeal. This is what I call Bridget Jones Diary rock-if you can suspend disbelief, you’re in for some serious uplift. With lead single “Violet Hill,” Coldplay join a cabal of artists obsessed with such geographical protuberances-Peter Gabriel had “Solsbury Hill,” U2 had “One Tree Hill,” and two years ago Thom Yorke introduced us to “Harrowdown Hill.” Here, Queen-like guitars add crunch and a modern hip-hop trick gets employed with the chorus’s insistent, in-your-face bass stabs.

Late addition “Strawberry Swing” is the album’s lone weak track. It’s ostensibly about a “perfect day” in a strawberry swing, but the metaphor goes nowhere. Album closer “Death and All His Friends” begins with a melody reminiscent of the song “Falling Down” from the Once soundtrack. But that’s just a little bit of history repeating.

Vida La Vida is the work of a band finding new confidence and settling into the studio. X&Y was a pressure-cooked mess – this points to a more fruitful future. In the meantime, Coldplay has done all they can to make peace with the haters, with a free single download and a free concert at Madison Square Garden. “If you love me, won’t you let me know?” demands Martin in “Violet Hill.”

Alright, Coldplay, enough. We love you, already!

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