COLDPLAY – Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Parlophone ’08): Unlike Maroon 5, who are content as they push forty to reign supreme in the singles world, Coldplay want to be an Important Band, the rightful heirs to U2 as world-conquerors. Nowhere else in their discography is their bid for Very Serious Artists making a Serious Work of Art with Big Themes and Important Messages more apparent than with Viva la Vida: it features themes of “love, war, and revolution,” has a title that translates as “Long live life,” features Liberty Leading the People as the artwork, and is produced by fellow Serious Artist Brian Eno. It contains Deep Insights such as “Those who are dead are not dead / They’re just living in my head,” and “Just because I’m losing doesn’t mean I’m lost,” lyrical paroxysms on par with Influential Contemporary U2 titles like “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” So big are Coldplay, and so momentous is this album supposed to be, that it might have been more fun were it a spectacular failure.
All that buildup only to say that Viva la Vida is a good album. Not a great album—just good. Just good because they have talent but no instinct, timing but no emotion, and producer Brian Eno made the wise choice of lavishly decorating the interior of the inhibited parameters the band had built for themselves rather than trying to get them to wade in anything even ankle-deep outside those self-imposed limits. There are Middle Eastern string interludes on “Yes,” a bass drum pounding over a churning church organ on “Lost!” and a Radiohead-inspired breakdown jam halfway through “42.” The band plays well but too often feels like they’re being pushed to let go. As for the lyrics, well, Martin delivers them prettily, but his ideas about love, or war, or death, or God, or the death of God, or the God of death aren’t sharpened enough to occasionally jab you into attention, nor are they vague enough for you to sustain your own fill-in-the-blank narrative. They rest in the unhappy middle, where what he wants to say more or less comes across, and discovering the real meaning is often a letdown.
I wish Coldplay were better. That a group of Brits who wouldn’t know an emotion if it pissed in their pints to produce consistent albeit utterly predictable adult alternative arena rock for fifteen years is not unnoteworthy. Their problem isn’t talent—it’s having no clue what to do with it. Every time they approach an inspiring moment they back off with hands raised. And that’s frustrating because had Eno snuck out of the studio with demo tapes and handed them off to a real arena-rocker with feeling like Win Butler, who knows what greatness could have come from this material. Instead, it’s pleasant but not nourishing. Put kindly, Coldplay are the Radiohead of warm feelings. Put rudely, Chris Martin is the David Brooks of pop. B PLUS (***)