Chris Martin is a master emotional manipulator. The Coldplay frontman designs his band’s songs like quick-release tablets; once their coating is stripped away, these anthems of hope and despair easily dissolve into their raw components (a soaring falsetto; a piano chord) and shoot through a listener’s bloodstream to target the feelings they’re hoping to elicit. It is no coincidence that Coldplay titled its breakout second album A Rush of Blood to the Head.
Chris Martin’s dreams of making sublime art are tempered by the awareness that as the lead songwriter for one of the most profitable music brands in the world, the future of the shaky music industry rests largely on his shoulders.
Toying with people’s emotions is no great feat in contemporary music. Arguably, it’s the foundation of most pop, which focuses less on form or content than on triggering reactions — mostly because people buy more records when they’re seriously moved. But Martin seems driven to transform listening to Coldplay into a near-religious experience. It’s not an instance of striving to be, as John Lennon said of the Beatles, "more popular than Jesus"; Martin lacks that kind of hubris. Rather, he paints himself and his bandmates as vessels through which universal hymns are channelled. A song like Clocks is Coldplay’s version of Walt Whitman’s "barbaric yawp," sounded over the roofs of the world.
Martin’s dreams of making sublime art are tempered by the awareness that as the lead songwriter for one of the most profitable music brands in the world, the future of the increasingly shaky music industry (or at least label EMI) rests largely on his shoulders. Coldplay’s latest album, Viva La Vida, or Death And All His Friends represents Martin’s attempt to reconcile these concerns. He seems invested in commercial success not for money-grubbing reasons, but because reaching as many people as possible represents collective harmony. His lyrics, as per usual, are wide-eyed explorations of "universal issues." But on Viva La Vida, Martin has moved beyond the ham-fisted Seussian couplets that marred previous Coldplay releases, invoking instead Biblical and military tropes to explore themes of love and mortality.
I never quite bought the navel-gazing Sturm und Drang of Coldplay’s last album, X&Y. Though the lads may be tickled by rough-edged rawk guitars and searing basslines, they’re ultimately a bunch of softies enamoured of shiny pretty things. (The band’s first big hit was Yellow (2000), a gossamer sheet of falsetto-drenched dreck that sounded like unicorns weeping tears made of rainbows.) Unfortunately, a surfeit of prettiness is often pretty dull. For Viva La Vida, Coldplay recruited producers Brian Eno and Markus Dravs, who have helped the band create songs that are not only interesting, but surprisingly muscular.
In part, this is due to Eno’s skill in creating complex frameworks on which to hang Martin’s more temperate melodies. (He’s more judicious with the falsetto this time around.) The liner notes list Eno as both producer and architect of "sonic landscapes," and his ambient noodlings are immediately apparent on the instrumental opener Life in Technicolour.
These songs are all about texture, which makes for some very fine mood music. In the two-parter Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love, Martin’s customary piano chords – the meat of many Coldplay anthems – are relegated to jaunty dressing on top of driving percussion and galloping guitars. (This is the closest Coldplay has ever sounded to Achtung Baby-era U2.) But those sonic textures sneak up on you and quietly fill each crevice in the song. Just when the production feels dense enough to suffocate you, it pulls back into spare, pillowy piano chords overlaid with soft clanging effects. Aside from a melody that borrows from the Les Mis ballad A Heart Full Of Love, it’s a neat, sprawling epic.
The second divided track, Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant, is even more remarkable. Here, Martin ditches his choirboy coo and mans up with a low, meaty growl (!) to sing about lust (!!) while clattering percussion and Arabic-inspired (!!!) strings flutter around him. For a band that doesn’t do sexy, it’s, well, hot. And lest you think the two-part structure is an obnoxious conceit, the strings from Yes are interpolated through pedal-assisted guitar patterns here, which makes for a smart coda.
Not everything here is quite so intellectual. There’s raucousness in the gumboot stomp of Lost!; the razor-edged guitars that rip through Violet Hill are primal and aggressive; and the toms and Celtic accents on Strawberry Swing are a nice trip down Martin’s memory lane. Sharply bowed violins lead you in to Viva La Vida, which is the same kind of Big Inspirational Rock Anthem Coldplay used to make out of huge slabs of major-key guitars and big, blocky piano chords. This time, it’s a big bouquet of shimmering strings, wrapped around terribly earnest musings about Saint Peter at heaven’s gate and cavalry choirs. (Happily, the orchestration distracts from the words).
The closer, Death and All His Friends, is the closest this album comes to being cinematic. It starts as a simple arrangement of a single vocal melody, doubled on piano. Slowly, it builds to a climax of hammering keyboards, big drums and, finally, shrill gusts of melody and what sounds like a small choir. At a different time, Martin and co. might have opted to close their album with an actual children’s chorus, crossing the line from sweet to schmaltzy; the fact that they held back is what differentiates today’s Coldplay from the band that brought you Yellow.
Ultimately, Viva la Vida is the sound of Coldplay taking less accessible music (My Bloody Valentine, Blur, Arcade Fire, John Lennon’s more psychedelic experiments, Middle Eastern tinges) and filtering them into an easily digestible amalgam. It’s the sound of Coldplay taking tiny, ever-so calculated risks in the interest of evolving without pissing anyone off. And it works: Viva la Vida is both braver and more immediately engaging than X&Y.
Viva La Vida is in stores now.
Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.