Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Slender Threads of Critical Favour

Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (EMI, 2008)

I’ve been meaning to compose a calm, rational piece about Coldplay’s new album for the past few days but John Mulvey seems to have beaten me to it over at Wild Mercury Sound on the Uncut website. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m hardly a big fan of the group but my early animosity towards them has gradually tempered into something approaching indifference or even agnosticism. What completely baffles me about the response to ‘Viva La Vida’ is the sudden venomous assault on the group at a time when they have made what must be their most stimulating album.

This gives a false impression of the group as a critical punchbag – their previous three albums all received generous reviews which, in some cases (particularly with ‘Parachutes’ and ‘X and Y’) overstated both their quality and significance. So, ‘Viva La Vida’ appears to have become the ‘Be Here Now’ of the group’s catalogue – the record upon which the fickle opinion of critics suddenly turns (although even that record was rapturously received in the first instance). Incidentally, also like ‘Be Here Now’, ‘Viva La Vida’ is being released on a Thursday, but not this time coinciding with any public examination results. Those magazine critics at the plush music monthlies and even the broadsheet newspapers built them up, so - now that they’re a massively popular group with a singer married to a successful actress – they’ll have no qualms with knocking them down again. Or is it more that the fate of Guy Hands at least in part rests on the success of this album?

It clearly won’t work though, so ultimately there can be little point. ‘Viva La Vida’ has already racked up record iTunes pre-sales. So Andy Gill’s lengthy piece in the Independent, as much of a character assassination on Chris Martin as a fatuous dismissal of the band, seems like an indulgent waste of effort. His statement that he has never met anyone who liked Coldplay is just plain silly – many people I know like them, and not all of them are unadventurous automatons. Much of the ill feeling seems to be based on the fact that the group aren’t radical enough – even with that avant-garde master Brian Eno at the studio controls (although his own music recently has been far from innovative, and he hasn’t produced a truly original album in quite some time). Yet, by Chris Martin’s own admission, radicalism is hardly what the group is aiming at.

Instead, he has claimed the rather more modest goal of finding different and more interesting contexts for the group’s melodic sensibilities. Listening to Viva La Vida, which is, at least in part, a confident, atmospheric and stirring record, I think they may have come close to achieving this. In the past, Coldplay records tended to be focussed on either a set of plodding piano triads, or, much worse, multi-tracked guitars all chugging in exactly the same way, with unsubtle, strictly regimented drums joining in for the ride. It was a frequently tedious and resoundingly conventional formula. The recent single ‘Violet Hill’ backed up Martin’s statement. Whilst the insistent, pounding rhythm and appealing melody sounded familiar – the snarling, menacing guitar and bluesy inflections seemed imported from somewhere else - somewhere considerably more exciting.

On the rest of ‘Viva La Vida’, there are further notable changes. Keyboards are even more prominent than they were on ‘X and Y’, and the piano isn’t always merely laying down basic rhythm. The percussion tracks are more intricate and integral to the arrangements – and Jonny Buckland’s guitar often seeps in more for effect and texture than for foundation. The combination of bombastic organ and ritualistic percussion on ‘Lost’ is particularly striking, and a number of other tracks march along with military impetus. The album even begins with an instrumental that rather resembles The Cure at their most blissful and least dark. The epic medley of ‘Lovers in Japan’ and ‘Reign of Love’ is certainly bombastic – but it also has a rousing power absent from the group’s more turgid moments, borrowing liberally from the restless urgency of Arcade Fire. One of my favourite tracks here is ‘Strawberry Swing’, with its offbeat rhythms and circuitous looped guitars. It has an enticing mood, even if it is topped by some innocuous and banal lyrics.

It’s unclear whether or not it has been at the behest of Eno, but Martin has made some sort of conscious effort to restrain some of his vocal quirks here. His irritating tendency to flip suddenly into falsetto is mostly absent, and his voice is more understated and controlled throughout. On ‘Yes’ this leads to a rather nondescript and meandering song that makes the Eastern strings used in the arrangement sound rather like a desperate attempt to add interest. Similarly, its sudden lurch into a U2-apeing coda seems rather forced. On the excellent title track though, characterised by synth string chords, a pulsing heartbeat and mock-baroque flourishes, he sounds both purposeful and reflective and unusually unaffected. It’s rather unlike anything else the group has yet recorded and comfortably the highlight of their catalogue.

Of course, Martin won’t entirely abandon his preference for slothful balladry or suffocating blandness. ‘42’ will be more familiar to those fans who eagerly embraced ‘Trouble’ or ‘The Scientist’, although it admittedly has an interesting shape to its Beatles-esque melody. ‘Cemeteries of London’ merely adds a hint of folklore to an otherwise over-familiar form. They are not keen to challenge their audience too much.

Similarly, his lyrics remain a substantial handicap. The aforementioned ‘Strawberry Swing’ looks like poetry when compared with Martin’s series of monumental clangers as opening lines. ‘Just because I’m losing doesn’t mean I’m lost’ is merely characteristic of Martin’s frustrating emotional vagueness, but ‘All the people who are dead are not dead, they’re just living in my head’ is plain ugly. I can just about cope with the title track’s mock-historical reflections on fallen power though. That at least makes for a change.

Whilst ‘Viva La Vida’ is no gargantuan masterpiece, there is merit in its approach, and it means the band have at last made an artistic statement that goes some way towards justifying their personal fortunes. Coldplay are not radicals – indeed, they continue to operate in a safe zone where they can refine their formula without causing too much offence – but how much of the British music industry is radical? Are the Arctic Monkeys really revolutionaries? The likes of The Wombats, The Kooks, Pigeon Detectives and The Fratellis look like stone-age luddites by comparison with Coldplay circa 2008. I’d rather campaign against the British music industry’s current tendency to elevate lumpen, boorish rock music to high art than have a good old moan about Chris Martin’s meaninglessness. I’d be surprised if I grew to like ‘Viva la Vida’ enough to include it in my albums of the year list – but, staggered as I am to admit this, I find it more interesting than some of 2008’s bigger disappointments (Spiritualized and My Morning Jacket particularly).

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