- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

Capitol Records

When Bo Diddleydied earlier this month, much was made of his signature rhythm, which he described as “basically an Indian chant.” When fellow moniker-sporting guitarist the Edge shreds his last, he too may be remembered for a wildly influential rhythmic riff - the delayed arpeggio that opens “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

It’s no accident that this unmistakable rhythm and sound permeates Coldplay’s fourth studio album. For one thing, Brian Eno, producer of U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” is at the helm on “Viva La Vida.” Second, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper in an interview, “I always view our albums in terms of U2 albums. ‘Viva la Vida’ is our ‘Unforgettable Fire’ in that it’s less straightforward, more oblique.”

Audio clip: Listen to Coldplay’s “Violet Hill”

Of course, it’s utterances like this, along with flights of falsetto, leaden piano chords and maddeningly nonspecific lyrics that plumb the shallows of inanity that make Coldplay so easy (and fun) to dislike.

The group is an easy target in part because it’s so successful commercially. In an era when breakout success is measured in hundreds of thousands of units, Coldplay is one of a handful of bands that guarantee CD sales in the millions.

In 2005, shares of recording giant EMI (parent company to Coldplay’s label, Capitol Records) fell after news of a delay in the release of the band’s “X&Y.” It all makes Coldplay feel like an extruded corporate product rather than four guys in a studio dreaming up music.

“Viva La Vida” is more than an extended homage to U2. In large part, it’s a departure from the Chris Martin-at-the-piano-being-weepy-and-soulful formula that stood the band in good stead. There is one of these here, called “42.” It’s predictably slow, strained and almost aggressive in its mopey posturing - but it is the exception rather than the rule.

The best song on the album is the title track. Released as a single, it gets its rhythm from a stiffly bowed cello part that is grave and upbeat all at once. The melody, in part, comes from a soaring violin. The two string parts bookend Mr. Martin’s smooth tenor, which here isn’t straining - at least not much - and the piano and bell accents give it a kind of churchy feel.

The other single, “Violet Hill,” is more diffuse and abstract. It opens, U2-like, with an extended ethereal sustain before a bit of piano and a thrumming electric guitar part bring it crashing to earth. Jon Buckland’s heavy guitar part obliterates the plinking piano notes in a pleasing fashion; it’s as vital and transporting a track as Coldplay has ever recorded.

Is Coldplay’s fourth album good enough to justify the 10 million sales EMI is banking on? Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that it’s exquisitely wrought stadium rock: catchy and inoffensive without being bland. No, because many of Coldplay’s blatant and well-documented sins against rock are on display here: callowness, lack of passion and an unwillingness to engage lyrically with the emotional mood they project.

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