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A different Coldplay

Music | Viva la Vida is a shot of musical diversity from an unlikely source

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

In June 2005 British "heavy light rockers" Coldplay decided to push back the release date of their third album, X&Y, and sent EMI's stock into a nosedive. Exactly three years later, pre-release anticipation once again reached fever pitch, with EMI's financial future a second time being linked to the success of a Coldplay record. Only this time, the sensitive Chris Martin and his mates face an additional, daunting hurdle: overcoming the press backlash that declared the foursome, in one reviewer's famous phrasing, "the most insufferable band of the decade."

Coldplay's fourth release mostly delivers on the band's promise to "get better, not bigger." With Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay has taken great pains to address charges that its music is too cliché, too predictable, too bloated-and thus has taken a small step away from the hooky choruses and symmetrical ballads that endeared the band to millions. Without Coldplay's signature infrastructure, Viva at times meanders along the path of directionless imagery and leaves its experiments half-finished.

Abandoning rock instruments in favor of strings and orchestral percussion, the title track is the most polished piece on the record. It's also one of Martin's finest tunes, a reminder of how good the guy can be at plotting intervals. The soaring intro "Life in Technicolour" is the sort of takeoff one would expect, but it is impossible to deny its shimmering appeal. The record's first attempt at a curveball, "42" is a subdued piano ballad turned chaotic, horn-driven symphony. Its rock breakdown and stratospheric second movement, in which Martin yells, "You didn't get to heaven but you made it close!" is the stuff of pleasure if not the annals of history.

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Where Coldplay's past lyrics have trod well-worn paths of love gained and lost (particularly the latter), Viva looks to broader themes, including politics and religion. Its imagery is loaded with allusions to war and faith, from scenes of battle-torn London ("Violet Hill") to anguished wrestling with loneliness and sexual temptation ("Yes"), to daydreams about mortality ("42"), while the hushed closer, "Death and All His Friends," quietly endeavors to resist death's grip on humankind.

A shot of musical diversity from an unlikely source, Viva la Vida is the Coldplay record for people who don't like Coldplay. Old fans will be just as pleased, and EMI has nothing to worry about.

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