Pitchfork: 6.5 Rolling Stone: 3.5/5 Metacritic: 72 Spin: 4.5/5
Released: June 2008
Life in Technicolor
Cemeteries of London
Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love
Viva la Vida
Strawberry Swing [LISTEN]
Death and All His Friends
To anyone who considered Coldplay a one-trick pony, capable only of a certain kind of sound that we’ve seen them almost perfect over the course of their first three albums, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is a wake-up call. Considering Coldplay is my favorite band, I of course have a bias, but here are some facts on the album’s release: It was the best-selling album of 2008. It won Best Rock Album at the 2009 Grammy Awards. It is the most paid-for downloaded album of all time. Now of course much of the reason for this success is simply that the band is so popular already, and the expectations so high, that naturally a lot of buzz circulates when they release something new, and people buy it. But I’d like to think that much of the reason for the success of the album is also because it’s an amazing album.
The opening track, “Life in Techniclor”, is a two-and-a-half minute instrumental piece (aside from a few “Oh-oh-ohh”s). Starting in a synth-y dreamlike loop, the song grows in intensity using a set of pleasant chords one could expect from the band, although something sounds quite different in the sound and execution. A stringed Indian instrument called a santoor drives the major melody, accompanied at first by a pair of what sound like hand drums. The song, catchy from start to end, climaxes in a pounding display of instrumentation, and trickles out to bleed into the second track. It’s an early sign that you’re listening to a Coldplay on a slightly different path. (Note: Prospekt’s March, an eight-song EP released post-Viva la Vida, is worth purchasing if for no other reason than “Life in Technicolor ii”.)
“Lost!” was one of the album’s singles, and while not one of my personal favorites, certainly a great rock ballad. Again utilizing interesting percussion, it’s an organ-heavy, clappy song with Buckland’s characteristically simple guitar riffs, booming from start to finish. The next track, “42”, is served in three parts, reminiscent of a late Beatles formula. The first part is a soft piano and string ballad with eery vocals from Martin. The second part picks up the pace significantly with a frenzied guitar solo and uncharacteristic drumming on Will Champion’s part. The third segment is an upbeat back-and-forth between a now chipper Martin on acoustic guitar belting, “You thought you might be a ghost!/You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close!”, and more rockin’ guitar riffs from Buckland.
“Lovers in Japan” is one of my favorites, not just from the album but the band themselves. It is from start to finish an up-tempo wall of sound multi-layered with piano, guitar, bass, drums, vocals and a constant “background aura” for lack of a better word. The song shares its nearly seven-minute track time with “Reign of Love”, a tender, dreamlike piece comprised of simple piano chords, Martin’s vulnerable singing and the ever-so-slight U2-esque background of Johnny’s guitar-playing. The following song, “Yes”, is edgier and more serious sounding, and though one of the most atypical Coldplay songs upon first listen, still an instant Coldplay gem. Displaying a heavy use of strings and Inidan-style guitar playing akin to some of Harrison’s later Beatles contributions, it also features the deepest vocals to come from Chris Martin, ever.
If you’ve been near a radio at all for the past summer, you’ve heard the title track and biggest single from the album, “Viva la Vida”. Full of history- and religion-inspired lyrics, it’s a catchy melody accompanied by a thumping timpani and a sea of strings played with a sense of urgency. The chorus booms with Martin’s vocals and later an anthemic “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhh” from the other bandmates. “Strawberry Swing”, another personal favorite, opens with more late Harrison-esque jangly electric guitar from Buckland, which continues throughout the song along with Afro-pop-inspired thumping percussion. Martin has stated that he thinks the song is the best track on the album.
“Death and All His Friends”, go figure, is another personal favorite. As the closing song to the album, I was doubly curious as to how it would be. Would it go something like “Everything’s Not Lost”? “Amsterdam”? “Til Kingdom Come”? It begins with softly-sung vocals by Martin, the same tune of which is mimicked on the piano. After a verse, an inconspicuous solo from Buckland. After two more sung lines, the song picks up with a dance between now harder-hit piano chords and a more confident riff from Buckland. Cue the drums. Cue the background vocals. Cue a spontaneous climax, ushered in by searing notes from Buckland’s guitar and crashing cymbals from Champion. Cue the full-band anthemic singing (“No I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end/I don’t wanna cycle or recycle revenge/I don’t wanna follow death and all of his friends”). It’s a short-lived, but perfectly-timed climax, and a great close to the album (although the real close to the album is a hidden song harking back to the spacey opening, “Life in Technicolor”).
Is it the band’s best album to date? It’s personally hard for me to say it beats A Rush of Blood to the Head, which I very well may never let take second place, but to those who say it is, I wouldn’t fight them. It certainly shows about as much ambition and departure from their previous sound as AROBTTH was to Parachutes. And yet it’s still unmistakably Coldplay, with the same key aspects of the formula that make it easy to love their sound, as well as a few new ones. Viva la Coldplay.