Coldplay’s fourth release has been billed as their experimental record, as well as their political record. And it is both, relatively speaking. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends opens with an anthemic riff played not on guitar but on a Persian santur — a hammered dulcimer common to the traditional music of Iraq and Iran. The album’s lead single, “Violet Hill,” describes a scene in which “priests clutched onto Bibles/Hollowed out to fit their rifles.” Half the album’s tracks float images of war, while others evoke God, religion or death.
Fun, right? It is, weirdly enough. Viva la Vida is Coldplay’s effort to raise the creative bar in the wake of both huge commercial success and some not-insubstantial critical drubbing. But befitting their brand, the record isn’t that much of a departure: It’s still about stadium-scale melodies and singalong choruses. And while the experimentation makes this their most musically interesting album to date, its political messages are too vague to be heard amid its outsize hooks.
Coldplay have toured the world, and their frontman, Chris Martin, has done outreach in Africa with Oxfam International. So it makes sense that, from the title to the tunes, the set reflects some of the diversity of the band’s global fan base, which made 2005’s X&Y a Number One record in countries as far-flung as Lebanon, Chile, Malaysia and Thailand, as well as in the U.S. and the U.K. “Cemeteries of London,” which evokes an English country ballad, begins the journey in Coldplay’s own back yard, with images of a river “where Victorian ghosts pray.” The plinking melody of “Strawberry Swing” has the breezy North Pacific lilt of Japanese music. “Yes” finds Martin dropping his voice to an uncharacteristically low octave amid bracing bursts of Arabic-flavored violin in a song addressing that universal pop-song problem: lust. Producer Brian Eno also helped bring the world-music vibe. (While Eno gets top billing, Coldplay enlisted other producers, including Markus Dravs, whose work with Björk and Arcade Fire also merges the odd and the anthemic.) Of course, Eno’s work on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, by U2 — a band Coldplay revere and aspire to be — is probably more relevant here.
There are many U2 echoes on Viva la Vida, most notably Jonny Buckland’s guitar tone, which is more aggressive than ever. The album’s most sublime pop moment is probably “Lost!” a song about holding on against the odds that has the breathtaking loft of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It builds on a simple church-organ riff, a kick drum and some hand claps to a rhythmically soaring, Edge-like guitar solo. Later, the slashing chords on “Chinese Sleep Chant” are so fierce that Martin’s hollered vocals are overwhelmed, the melodic outline of his phrases barely discernible before searing psychedelic riffs erase him entirely.
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Which isn’t all that difficult to do. One of Martin’s signature qualities is his anti-rock-star persona — a big part of what allows so many fans to project themselves into his boots when he’s singing about pain or yearning or hope. It’s also what makes him a surprisingly excellent hook singer, as he’s proved playing foil to artists like Jay-Z (“Beach Chair”) and Kanye West (“Homecoming”). No way is Martin going to challenge these egos. He has an admirably Zenlike ability to get out of the way of even his own songs.
But there’s something troubling about his lack of clear political messages. In “Violet Hill,” he declares, “I don’t want to be a soldier/Who the captain of some sinking ship/Would stow, far below” — adding later, “Bury me in armor.” In “Lovers in Japan,” he states, “Soldiers you’ve got to soldier on/Sometimes even the right is wrong.” Are these peace anthems or encouragements to valiant warriors? Can they be both? Similarly, the title track seems to be about the end of an empire. But its rousing chorus — “I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing/Roman cavalry choirs are singing” — feels like a rallying cry for a Christian empire. Where’s an Arabic violin break when you need one?
Coldplay’s desire to unite fans around the world with an entertainment they can all relate to is the band’s strength, and a worthy goal. But on Viva la Vida, a record that wants to make strong statements, it’s also a weakness. Sometimes, to say what needs to be said, you need to risk pissing people off.