Coldplay Viva La Vida(Capitol) Buy it from Insound
What does Coldplay want to be? Do they want to be the quasi-experimental Radiohead-lite band that calls in Brian Eno to helm their latest project? Or do they want to be the soothing balladeers that make the girls go all gooey inside while providing fodder for the network execs that have to come up with theme music for their televised Olympics coverage? I don’t really think they can be both at the same time, and Viva La Vida sounds like that’s exactly what they are trying to do. Sure, I know what you’re going to say - “didn’t U2 walk this tightrope, didn’t the Beatles?” Of course, and it’s no doubt that U2 in particular is a model for this high-wire act. But there’s got to be something behind the acrobatics, namely a point of view worth communicating. What made She’s Leaving Home work in the context of Sgt. Pepper was its incongruity, and that was the statement – it’s 1967 and we are all taking a step outside reality and here are the myriad visions of our dream world, won’t you join us?
Coldplay struts on a similar stage in terms of worldwide success, and seems to make a play for artistic relevance at the same time, making the comparisons relevant. But like virtually everyone else who has achieved substantial success in recent years, save certain rap artists perhaps, Coldplay has smoothed over whatever edge they once had on moody gems like Don’t Panic. So now their intention is not to unsettle you, but to rouse you or soothe you by turns, depending on the needs of the marketplace. Give them credit, they’ve proven themselves adept at this formulation and have reaped the benefits. But for those of us looking for self-expression from our artists, we will have to look elsewhere, which is fine with Chris Martin, cuz he’s doin’ Gwyneth Paltrow. As for me, every pleasant hook and cranny of Viva makes me want to ignore it more and more. Hiring Eno, a legend I greatly admire, and exploring new textures and song structures in such an overt way, makes one think that we’re finally gonna get the straight skinny from the doe-faced Martin and company. Finally we’re going to hear what they wanted to say before but couldn’t, and they are going to start to reacquire the modicum of street cred they once had and frittered away with X&Y. Well, if it wasn’t clear before, it is now – it ain’t gonna happen.
In terms of cohesiveness, Viva La Vida is a mess. Part of the blame for this must lie with the venerable Eno, who reportedly flew into the studio every couple weeks just to hit the delete button on stuff that sounded too much like Coldplay. Sounds like a plan, but the results are fragmented and diffuse, and whatever pleasure that might have been derived from the band’s mastery of songcraft and sonics gets lost in a mire of scattershot ideas. These, to the casual listener, sound like brave experiments and risk-taking, but really are just unformed and unconnected pieces of different wholes. What they’ve given us is an exquisitely polished blur, enjoyable at times, mildly challenging at others, but nothing that you couldn’t feel comfortable piping in as background for the Sunday barbeque with the Petersons. And it looks as if we can now say for certain this is where the band wants to be. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing phony or petty about trying to please people – it’s an admirable desire. But at some point, serious artists don’t just want to write pretty tunes, they need to communicate something. That may be the ironic stupidity of the Ramones, the street-wise sexuality of the Stones, or (God help us) the world-changing fervor of Bono and the boys. It doesn’t really matter what…well, yeah it does, but it still has to be something. That doesn’t appear to be what Coldplay is going for, and that’s fine. It’s time they fessed up to it.24 June, 2008 - 18:40 — Alan Shulman