The Good: Good tunes, Decent lyrics, Good vocals
The Bad: SHORT, Derivative of itself/other Coldplay
The Basics: Surprisingly tight and original (borrowing more from earlier Coldplay than anyone else), Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is a worthwhile pop-rock album.
I know very little about the hype around the band Coldplay. I don't read anything about the group or its members and I only recognized the lead singer of the group in his appearance on the second season of Extras (reviewed here!) because of the explicit mention of Coldplay. I've enjoyed the music I have heard by Coldplay on the radio, though, and years ago I listened to and reviewed their album A Rush Of Blood To The Head (reviewed here!). Since then, though, I've not followed the band, though I would occasionally hear their songs on the radio. For about the last year one song of their in particular has caught my ear, "Vida La Vida," which is known to radio listeners from its refrain "That was when I ruled the world."
I have been listening to Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends pretty obsessively for the last few days, in no small part because whenever "Viva La Vida" plays, my partner has me replay it several times. The more I listen to the album, the more I appreciate that Coldplay is its own niche, but it is pretty well mired in that niche. Coldplay's music is distinctive to itself - i.e. the band generally does not sound like anyone else exactly - but it seems to largely repeat its own stuff. Outside the end of "Yes," which instrumentally sounds a lot like the chant that ends one of the radio-played songs by The Killers, the album sounds like Coldplay: mellow pop-rock with good lyrics that are sometimes presented in such a murky musical fashion that they may not be easily understood next to the instrumentals.
With only ten tracks occupying 45:49, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is distinctly the work of Coldplay. All of the songs are written by four of the five members of Coldplay (Phil Harvey apparently doesn't write) and Chris Martin provides the lead vocals on all of the songs. The band plays its own instruments, but no member of Coldplay was credited with producing, mixing or engineering, which seems odd considering how important production seems to be to the album.
Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is very much a Coldplay album. By that I mean that it is distinctly in the style of Coldplay. Songs feature Chris Martin's tenor voice, they often are creative using atypical instruments for pop-rock albums (like the prevalence of violins and an orchestral string sound on "Viva La Vida") and they cover a thematic range not limited to love and love lost like so many others working in the pop-rock field. The album is good, but it is unfortunately short, but it is cleverly designed to be played on continuous replay by the way the end of "Death And All His Friends" uses the same samples as "Life In Technicolor" so the songs meld together on replay.
Chris Martin sings quite well on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends and with minimal aid by production elements. On "Violet Hill" he opens with something of a more mechanized sound to his voice, but largely his voice is clear. He goes a little higher than his usual tenor range with surprising frequency and he also adds a bit of emotion into his vocal presentations. For example, on "Violet Hill" when he goes from high to low with his singing, he sounds like he is exerting himself. On songs like "Death And All His Friends" the backing vocals essentially form a chorus that blends the men's voices. The sound is good and Coldplay has a masculine vocal sound without being abrasive or over-the-top in the emotionalism of the vocals. Martin closes the album beautifully with a mellow set of lines that blends nicely into the keyboards and strings that take over after the vocals end.
Instrumentally, Coldplay is Coldplay. The band is creative and has more of an orchestral rock sound than anything else. Not a guitar-bass-drums group, the band uses a lot of keyboards, strings and atypical instruments. Only "Violet Hill" prominently uses electric guitars and percussion only dominates on "Lost!" "Cemeteries Of London" uses a more stark piano sound before the whole band joins in. But most of the songs are like "Lost!" in that they do not sound like anything else on the radio. That song uses an organ, handclaps and pounding drums for a very murky musical sound that sounds epic and grand.
Lyrically, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is thematically dominated by songs about change and loss. "Lost!" is a nihilistic song that wonderfully portrays the sense of flailing through a darkened world with its instrumental accompaniment and its lyrics. When Martin sings "You might be a big fish / In a little pond /Doesn't mean you've won / 'Cause along may come / A bigger one / And you'll be lost! / Every river that you tried to cross / Every gun you ever held went off / Oh and I'm just waiting 'til the firing's stopped / Oh and I'm just waiting 'til the shine wears off " ("Lost!") he sounds like Bono and anyone who likes mellow U2 will love that song. The sense of metaphor and imagery is distinct to Coldplay.
More often than not, Coldplay is lyrically Coldplay with its own little musical storysongs being bleated out to entertain themselves and their listeners. The sense of change is present in the song "Viva La Vida" with its lines "One minute I held the key / Next the walls were closed on me / And I discovered that my castles stand / Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand / I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing / Roman Cavalry choirs are singing / Be my mirror, my sword and shield / My missionaries in a foreign field." The diction and rhyme scheme is generally more complex than most popular rock artists producing radio hits these days.
In fact, only on "42" with the repetition of "Thought you might be a ghost / You didn't get to heaven but you made it close" does the band seem to be in a creative rut. "42" even sounds like the Coldplay song "In My Place." I suppose if one is stealing from themselves primarily that is not a bad thing. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is not a bad album.
The best track is "Viva La Vida" (though any "Best of" album that might come out in the future that lacks "Lost!" isn't a true "best of!") and the low point is the less memorable "Strawberry Swings."
For other music reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Playing The Angel - Depeche Mode
Get Behind Me Satan - The White Stripes
The Uninvited - The Uninvited
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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