ColdplayHuh, I don’t really know how to start this one. So everybody here knows who Coldplay is, right? Fairly big alt-pop band with arena-sized choruses, love, Fair Trade, falsettos…got Brian Eno to come in and produce their latest? Cool. So I can get right into it and say that Viva La Vida is the most accomplished album of their career. I mean that in pretty much every way: every song has its own color, the runtime is perfect, and the band has never sounded tighter or more inspired. It’s also the closest they’ve come to making a complete statement, rather than just stringing a bunch of romantic, isolated and vaguely political songs together and calling it an album. What is that statement you ask? Well, look at the title. Martin christened the first song of the band’s debut with the chorus “We live in a beautiful world.” Viva La Vida is his way of opening up that world and exposing its beauty. Yeah there’s death, yeah there’s heartache, yeah there’re…despots and lynch mobs…but all of this pales in comparison to the vibrancy of life itself. Is that a bunch of flowery bullshit? Well, that’s for you to decide. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for forty-five minutes.

The band was serious when they said they were bringing elements of world music into their sound. Whether it’s the flamenco guitars on “Cemeteries of London,” the conga drums of “Lost!” the Persian (?) strings of “Yes,” or Jonny Buckland tweaking his guitar to the pitch of a zither, shamisen, or whatever the hell exotic member of the lute family he was gunning for on “Strawberry Swing,” the band made the extra effort to channel a “worldly” influence throughout the album. It’s surprising how much they’re able to retain their original sound. Even with all these new elements, a more upbeat drive and Chris Martin singing at a lower register, every song here is recognizably Coldplay. Some have chastised the band for not going far enough, but hell, U2 didn’t leap to Achtung Baby from War. It’s more a redefinition—an expansion of their sonic palette—than a rewrite.

Style isn’t all they’re experimenting with either; they’re also tinkering with structure itself. Dig how “42” shifts from downtempo balladry to sweeping arena rock, or how “Lovers In Japan / Reign of Love” begins with a prismatic surge of piano, then dissipates into an intimate love song, or how “Yes / Chinese Sleep Chant” goes from psychedelic chamber pop to a sea of guitars lain over Martin’s cries of “Sleeeeep!” You could say that the band hasn’t done anything but force two completely different songs to occupy the same track for most of these numbers (pretty much all the “dash” tracks). I like to think they’re a study in contrast, since that’s partially what this album is about (see full-title of record), and that “Reign,” “Chant” and “The Escapist” would have lost a lot of their power if they were made stand alone songs .
Lots of people have been wondering how Brian Eno would affect the band’s sound. I think Eno took a fairly nuanced approached here, meaning that you can feel his influence—and he does contribute soundscapes to a few of the tracks here—but he never really overshadows the band. Still, there are moments on this album that they probably wouldn’t have hit without his tutelage, most notably the bookending compositions (some beautiful electronic coloring mostly courtesy of Jon Hopkins), and the explosive title track (the “Viva” one). Pretending that you haven’t already heard it on the radio or seen the inescapable iPod ad, this track sets baroque strings to an infectious dance beat, and the result is the grandest moment of sheer pop the band’s ever recorded, even if Martin’s the only one that actually showed up (if Buckland, Berryman and Champion played here, their instruments have been processed beyond recognition).

“Violet Hill” is the only song here that directly harkens back to the old sound, and to be honest, it’s probably the weakest of the bunch. It sounds exactly like what you’d expect from an Eno/Coldplay collaboration: misty guitar-pop with twists of piano, complemented by a gust of synthesizers. It’s not a bad song by any means, but it feels a little weak compared to everything else.

I’ve got to give it up for these guys. They could’ve easily lazed their way to another platinum plaque, but they decided to push themselves, and came up with their best effort to date. It’ll be a cold day in hell that you see the rock press shower a Coldplay album with praise, but don’t let that stop you from hearing this. They may have yet to reach the heights of R.E.M., U2 or Radiohead, but hell if they’re not close.
4½ Stars
Highlights: 42, Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love, Viva La Vida

-Greg Harrell