Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Seventh in the series is Coldplay‘s heady concept album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
Released: June 12. 2008
When it comes to picking Coldplay‘s best album, you’ve got three choices:
(well technically pick whatever album you want because you’re a grown adult who can make your own opinions and not rely on some internet guy to tell you how to think, but for the sake of this review let’s just go with these three)
A) Sophomore release A Rush Of Blood to the Head, where the band perfected their sound.
B) X & Y, which was essentially Coldplay doubling down on their mission to reach for the stars.
C) Viva La Vida, the mandatory “concept album”
Most professional music critics will pick one of these, though a few may go with the band’s debut Parachutes. Any one of these can be justified, and it’s simply a matter of the critic’s subjective taste.
But come on, logically speaking? It makes perfect sense to go with Viva La Vida. Nestled exactly in the middle of the band’s discography, it represents their creative peak and acts as the perfect rebuttal for naysayers of all stripes. It’s a shield from the common refrains of both dude bros and scoffing hipsters. This is Chris Martin and pals throwing all their cards on the table and winning every game they were playing at the time.
Coldplay had hinted at being hip before. They had cameos in zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and sampled Kraftwerk on X & Y‘s “Talk”. Chris Martin was an affable guy, even if he’d developed faint signs of Bono Syndrome. But to the world at large, they were just avatars of milquetoast lite rock. “The Scientist” and “Fix You” had cemented their reputation as peddlers of soft, uncomplicated music. They were the butt of most music-based jokes; easily slotted in alongside Sarah MacLachlan, James Blunt, Robbie Williams, OAR, and Train.
It was a frustratingly unique situation for the band. They were progenitors of a new wave of soft rock, but they themselves did not fit in that wave. Coldplay were – a lot – more talented than the public realized. To the layperson, songs like “Trouble” and “Fix You” are understandably perceived as simple weepies, but the composition and chord structure are so much more complex than one would think. These aren’t the canned four-chord stock tracks used as background music for rom-coms and reality TV shows, although the band could have easily gone down the safe route and sounded exactly like one of them. Instead Chris Martin, you know, actually spent time on songwriting. Unfortunately it didn’t really matter- to most people they were still “Coldplay”.
At that point he band could have very well devolved and still maintained their grip on the top rung. After all, as I write this in 2017 Coldplay have finally become the band people thought they were– and still have one of the year’s biggest songs. Back in 2008 though, being a commercial juggernaut wasn’t enough for them; they wanted a little respect.
So they took a sledgehammer to their mawkish reputation with full force. They pulled out costumes, a smattering of influences, and a multi-layered thematic potpourri. Viva La Vida still featured familiar sentiments about love and longing and the human condition, but they were now cloaked in references to…the French Revolution? A falling Roman emperor? A captured soldier in Japan? It was as if the band were hopping around the world in a time machine on every track.
True, it was a very heavy-handed transformation. Coldplay were basically yelling from the rooftops “HEY LOOK WE’RE ALL WEIRD NOW”. The bluntness was necessary though, as subtlety tends not to be picked up by the masses.
That’s why suddenly one day in April 2008 there was a new Coldplay song on the radio with full on, obvious, in-your-face, not-subtle-at-all distortion guitar. “Violet Hill” instantly blew up and got people talking. The riffs were menacing, the rhythm was bold, and the lyrics were a history lesson. It was both a quintessential anthem and a masterclass composition. A month later there came the title track which topped commercial year-end charts even with Martin singing about a deposed ruler’s lamentations.
The deeper cuts were no less fascinating. The placid “Strawberry Swing” featured West African influences, while “Yes” was a two-part song that started with swirling Arabic strings before transforming into a straight up shoegaze track. “Lovers in Japan” chimed out into eternity with its tack piano hook, a lush affair that fully evoked the cherry blossoms of the titular country. “Cemeteries of London” took cues from the darkest Cure songs, all spectral guitar and esoteric lyrics.
The worldly nature continued on the singles. Third radio offering “Lost” also revolved around an African rhythm, but was more thematically in line with the Coldplay of old (“Just because I’m losing/ Doesn’t mean I’m lost”). Martin’s pal Jay-Z would later contribute a verse to another version of it on the companion Prospekt’s March EP, but it was the stripped down piano take on that EP which would ultimately be the best version.
While we’re talking about that EP – essentially compiled of B-sides from Viva La Vida – we need to talk about “Life in Technicolor II”. The eminently buoyant track worked well enough as an instrumental on the album proper, but once Martin’s soaring vocals were added the song became an instant classic. The ebullient piano hook ranks only behind “Clocks” in the band’s catalogue.
It was a win on all fronts- Coldplay had gone “weird” but had not alienated a single listener. They revitalized their image as people realized “oh shoot…these blokes aren’t just sad chaps, they are real artists.” Most importantly, they built up a mountain of credibility they could rely on once they decided to succumb to the lure of Top 40 a decade later. For a brief moment in time, Coldplay were cool.