Viva la Vida Coldplay Sun Grade: B
With its meticulously grandiose melodies and botched "poetic" lyrics, Coldplay, fronted by the annoyingly self-obsessed Chris Martin, is an easy band to hate.
But here and there, the British rock quintet has managed to produce transcendent music. "Clocks" and "Yellow" immediately come to mind. And despite all the musical pretension, the band has a knack for making its overly stylish arena rock accessible.
On its last album, 2005's yawn-inducing X&Y;, Coldplay's formula seemed to be wearing thin. The CD brimmed with songs that sounded like retreads of what the guys had done before. To re-energize things for Viva la Vida, Coldplay's new album and fourth release overall, the guys made a smart move: They hired art-rock producer Brian Eno, who gently pushes the group out of its comfort zone.
The changes aren't too drastic, however. Coldplay is still Coldplay. The songs remain oceanic - vast and surging. The musical core is the same, but the details and colors are refreshingly different.
Eno tempers the band's majestic tendencies. The waves of stately guitars and Martin's meandering piano recitals are gone. The syrupy, wimpy balladry (i.e. "Fix You") and Martin's strained yelping are gone, too. Instead, Eno and Coldplay forgo simple, insistent melodies and concentrate on sculpting an album that works as a whole. Aside from the first single, the melancholic title track, there aren't any obvious blockbuster pop hits.
The music, though still self-consciously stylish, is refined and tightly focused. Synthesizers, exotic percussion, electronics, organs and guitars are artfully layered throughout the 10-track album, creating an often mesmerizing tapestry of sound. And it's all tastefully overlaid with Martin's ingratiating mid- and lower-range vocals.
The songs are lyrically sparse and ambiguous, driven mostly by the pulsing, expansive music. "Lost," with its stomp-clap rhythm, is a fine example. Perhaps taking a cue from Eno, Martin steps out of his head to write affecting character studies. The title track, written from first-person perspective, humanizes a displaced tyrant.
In less than 50 minutes, Coldplay manages to sharply synthesize its Radiohead and U2 influences and refine its musical grandiosity. Artistically, the band accomplishes more on Viva la Vida than it did on previous efforts. Although the arrangements might be murky and the songs less immediate than past hits, Coldplay sounds refreshed and explorative. You feel it in the music.
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Hear clips from Coldplay's new CD at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost