I wrote my first critique of "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends," Coldplay's new album, far too soon. Now that I've had two weeks to live with the CD, I'd like to try again.
The CD opens with "Life in Technicolor," beginning with an ethereal sample reminiscent of U2's opening track of Joshua Tree, "Where the Streets Have No Name": Fade in, organ, electric guitar with delay effects, and then gradually layering other instruments and sounds. This first track acts as an epic instrumental introduction to the second track, "Cemeteries of London." This same sample will be repeated at the end of the final track, so if you happen to have the CD on repeat, it will play from end to beginning almost seamlessly.
Something else I found interesting: you may notice more U2 influence than ever before in Coldplay's new songs. There are at least a dozen moments in this CD that are patently U2. As it turns out, when Coldplay set out to make a new record with a new sound, the legendary producer Brian Eno answered the call. Rolling Stone reports that Eno, whom we know as the co-producer behind Joshua Tree, wouldn't allow Coldplay to revert back to their old tricks in the production of this record (tricks like singing in falsetto on every song, for example). His influence makes this the most unique Coldplay CD to-date.
The second track, "Cemeteries of London," lays a sort of Middle-Eastern/Jewish riff over an Irish rhythm for an interesting sound. Eclectic as it may seem, it's all tied together with Coldplay's signature guitar tone and Martin's vocals. You may also notice a heartbeat at the beginning of the track (perhaps to signify life and death, the grand theme of the album). I have yet to find its counterpoint later in the album, but I'm sure it's in there somewhere. I love the piano tag at the end.
Track 3, "Lost!" is reminiscent of X&Y, even using the same organ patch as heard in "Fix You." Nevertheless, it's catchy and easy to nod your head to. I applaud the producer, or writer or whoever said, "no, no, don't use that chord, use this one" in this song. They substitute less common chords for what would have otherwise been a very conventional vi-IV-I-V pattern. Instead of returning to I, they use a iii chord in its place, building tension through the verse which finally resolves to I in the chorus. Their choice of chords and leading tones is just outside the box enough to make a simple idea new and interesting.
Track 4, "42" begins as an eerie, drug-hazed, Beatles-reminiscent ballad only to break out in a wicked drum beat around 1:35 (4/4, accents on 2 and the & of 4), and then transition to a happy pop song around 2:45, only to return to the same, somber place in which it began. It may still grow on me, but for now I stand by my first impression: "weird" and "schizophrenic." I understand why they did it (to portray the dead/living message of the song), but it's my least favorite song on the album.
Track 5, on the other hand, is one of my favorites (second only to "Violet Hill"). In counterpoint to "Lost!", "Lovers in Japan" does employ the conventional vi-IV-I-V pattern in the chorus, but it's worked for millions of hits before- why not now? A hammered dulcimer and pulsing kick drum provide the rhythmic backbone for the more fluid ambiance typical of Coldplay (and Brian Eno, for that matter). At 3:57 a whole new idea begins, which to me adds to the duel nature of the album. They really have fifteen tracks on this CD not ten because several tracks introduce multiple ideas that could have been stand-alone songs. I suppose this schizophrenia is meant to subconsciously present the listener with a choice between living the life (vida la vida) and "death and all his friends," as the title prompts.
Track 6, "Yes," is moody and driving. It was on this track when I first thought, "this CD might have been a little over-produced," but it's such a cool song I can hardly complain. The strings that had been lying low to this point on the album take a more central focus on this track, again employing some Middle-Eastern modes. "Yes" also breaks off to a whole new idea at 4:05, which again struck me as strange and unnecessary.
Track 7, "Viva la Vida" is the title track and first hit single. It's a great representation of the whole album, really; the strings are in full force, it's got the kick-drum drive (heartbeat) prominent throughout the record, and some "oo's and ahh's" over ethereal samples that is both typical Coldplay and representative of a reformed approach in production.
Track 8, "Violet Hill." I may get some flack for this from some of you avid Coldplay fans, but I have decided that "Violet Hill" is Coldplay's best song to-date. And that's all I have to say about that for now.
Track 9, "Strawberry Swing" is like its title suggests, lilting and fun. To me, it's like The Beatles meets Phil Collins somehow. Still, you can't help but wish you were in a convertible singing this song back to a sunny blue sky. I make a beach mix every couple years... Strawberry Swing will definitely be on the next one. The song ends with an Edge-esque guitar riff.
Track 10, "Death and All His Friends" can be broken down to three sections: 1. A quiet piano ballad, "so come over, just be patient and don't worry," 2. a borderline cheesy pop instrumental break followed by a great line, "I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don't want to follow death and all of his friends," and 3. the repeated sample from track one, this time with the impressive addition of vocals. 3:30 to the end is what the whole CD seems to have been gesturing towards; it is the defining moment of the whole album. "In the end, we'll lie awake and we'll dream of making our escape."
Schizophrenic as it may seem, I am greatly impressed by the various colors and contrasts Coldplay employs to create a CD that's more than just a collection of songs, but one narration of an epic story. It starts and ends in the same minimalistic sample/cycle, revealing the circle of "recycled revenge" that is clearly at the heart of the record (the history of war and mistakes we are bound to repeat if we don't learn). Death's voice is in the sorrowful, tension-filled chords of songs like "42" and "Yes"; Life's voice is in the heartbeat-pulse of kickdrums like in "Lovers in Japan" and "Strawberry Swing." Somehow the clash of these two forces reverberates in the sympathetic strings of violins, cellos, and electric guitars.
The album is a goldmine of artistic expression with many layers yet to be discovered, I'm sure. I give it an A-, counting only the cheesy drum beat from 1:50-2:15 of track 10 and the album's generally-meandering ideas against it.
P.S. I love the album cover, a French painting from the Romantic era by Eugene Delacroix.