09.06.2008

Viva La Vida, Coldplay: First Impressions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:04 am

Here it is, Mark: The long-awaited Viva La Vida review!

But before I dive in, two quick backgrounds. First, the background of the album: It is the fourth album of the rocking British band Coldplay, following the immensely popular X&Y of 2005. The album’s title, “Viva La Vida,” roughly translated means “Long live life.” The album’s cover art is a painting by Eugene Delacroix entitled Liberty Leading The People, which depicts a woman personifying Liberty and commemorating both the French Revolution of 1789 and the July Revolution (also French) of 1830. The album’s producer is Brian Eno, who is known in the capacity of a solo artist as “the father of ambient music” and in the capacity of a producer as such of U2′s album The Joshua Tree.

Second, my background with Coldplay: I consider Coldplay one of my favorite bands, and often cite them as an influence on my own music. I quite enjoy their first album, Parachutes–most of the songs are good but the really good songs are really good. Their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, is better all around and I very much enjoy it. And the album that precedes Viva La Vida, X&Y, I consider to be my single favorite album of all time. I am not so presumptious as to consider it the best album of all time, as my experience is not so wide as to make that declaration; but it is alone atop all the others I have heard. There’s not a song on it that I dislike or even feel indifferent about. It is excellent in every way and I simply love it.

With these prerequisite backgrounds now dispensed of, we move on to the TLB review.

I listened to the album one time through (thus the title, “First Impressions”) on Wednesday night; I wanted to share my first thoughts with you, my faithful readers, and I plan to elaborate in future posts as I listen to it more.

Listening to Viva La Vida was a paradoxical experience for me. Part of me felt like I loved it, while part of me felt that I didn’t understand it musically. It was simultaneously a completely fresh and original sound, while also suggesting many comparisons in my mind. The album progressed at a leisurely pace, but when it was done it seemed no time at all had passed.

The thing that stood out to me the most, above all else, was the album’s energy, its exuberant exhilaration (if I may make such a bold alliteration). X&Y was dark, chill, mellow, while it seems Viva La Vida is almost bursting with excitement. It reminded me vaguely of Derek Webb’s first two solo albums, She Must And Shall Go Free and I See Things Upside Down–although in that case the moods of the CDs were reversed.

Viva La Vida finds one of the world’s greatest bands contemplating its mortality. With a title meaning “Long live life,” song titles like “Cemetaries of London,” “Viva La Vida” and “Death And All His Friends,” and the lyrics of songs like “42,” the whole album points to the coming to grips with death. It reminded me also of another great album that had a similar theme: Linkin Park’s most recent album, Minutes To Midnight. But the contrast is perhaps more interesting than the comparison. In Linkin Park’s case, the album is much more restrained, sober-minded and contemplative than their previous releases (and, in my opinion, is their best). With Viva La Vida, however, Coldplay responds to the contemplation of death with a celebration of life.

Such, in my opinion, are the philosophical underpinnings of the music–but on to the music itself.

The music itself is also rather paradoxical. As I just remarked to my roommate Mike, it’s a sound unlike anything I’ve heard. In many ways it includes more elements of electronic music than their previous work: many of the beats are more reminiscent of electronic music than rock music, and many of the synth and atmospherics effects are as well. “Life In Technicolor,” the instrumental overture to the CD, could very easily have come from a CD in Mike’s electronic collection. And yet in other ways it’s more acoustic than X&Y and sounds more like a live band jamming onstage than a carefully produced album from the studio. I must confess I’ve never seen Coldplay live–although to do so would be an experience only to be topped by seeing U2. But I imagine live performances of X&Y as a classic rock music performance, the band members rocking out because the music is just awesome; my imagination of a Viva La Vida performance is of the band members smiling, laughing and bouncing off the walls, not to be showy but just because the music is so much freakin’ fun to play. The album also includes some Latin, African and Asian elements, apparently culled from playing world tours while writing the songs. The combination of styles is exquisite, intriguing and totally original in my experience.

Another thing that stands out very quickly is the mixing of the voice. I wrote in a post about Elton John that Coldplay sometimes mixes the voice at a similar volume level to that of the instruments, so that it doesn’t stand out as it often does in popular music. I wrote that “they see the voice (at least in these particular songs) as just another instrument, no more or less important than the others, and so the blending in the mix is intentional. It puts the voice on equal artistic footing with, say, the guitar and drums,” and that is very much in evidence on this record. I even mentioned the song “Viva La Vida” in the post, as it was available as a single on iTunes at the time, but that mixing style certainly pervades the album, with a few notable exceptions (such as “Violet Hill”). In a subsequent listen I’d like to listen with the lyrics in front of me, as they were often obscured by the other instruments.

The instrumentation of the album is also noteworthy. It is most certainly a rock album, with guitars, bass and drums holding sway. Coldplay’s signature piano and pipe organ also make appearances, although much less than in X&Y. But the band makes use of a more colorful instrumental palette overall (to mix my artistic metaphors). The electronics and synths used are simultaneously similar to ones used previously and different, often more evocative of electronic and ambient music (likely Eno’s influence). And while strings have been used on each of the band’s previous albums, they are featured here in a hitherto unseen prominence. The Latin-flavored flourishes in “Yes” are particularly interesting (as are, in the same song, the luxuriously long electric guitar bends).

Some of the songs’ rhythms are notable as well for their adventuresomeness (is that a word?). The instrumental interludes in “Yes” throw in an extra beat or take one away here and there, just to throw you off. And the final track “Death And All His Friends,” after the first piano/vocal section and a more conventional 4/4 groove, settles into a rocking (but very atypical) 7/4 for the song’s climax.

I know this post is already waxing very loquacious (perhaps too much so), so I will endeavor to bring it to a close. Overall, I must say that I greatly enjoyed Viva La Vida, but I look forward to uncovering further layers and nuances in subsequent listenings. True to the album art, the sound is revolutionary, certainly for Coldplay and (considering Coldplay’s influence) possibly for others as well. It is a blend of styles that have worked for them in the past, while
also being a departure and an attempt at something vastly different. The album’s energy is abundant and infectious, and had me tapping my feet and bobbing my head even as I sat in my desk chair listening to my computer speakers. At this point, after one listen, it hasn’t dethroned X&Y; but it’s a pretty darn good record.

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Comments

  1. Gravatar

    Darth_Harbison on 09.07.2008

    *rejoices*

    I'm satisfied.

    My reaction to it was much the same as yours . . . although, of course, yours was much better articulated (both in the post and in your own mind). Actually, thinking back, it took me a few listens to decide if I liked it or not . . . I think I liked the music, but I wasn't sure if I liked the album because it sounded so un-Coldplay-like. But I've decided that I very much like it.

    That being said, though, I also think that X&Y is much better. They're both good albums, but X&Y is better.

  2. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 09.11.2008

    I have not yet listened to this album so I do not have any impressions on it, but I am impressed with this post. You have an extremely wide vocabularly and I must say that you are quite a talented writer. Just a few examples found in this post alone: presumptious, declaration, dispensed, paradoxical, exuberant exhilaration, contemplative, philisophical underpinnings, evocative, hitherto unseen prominence, adventuresomeness, waxing very loquacious… Well done sir. Well done!

  3. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 09.11.2008

    Hi Ryan,
    Thanks! I appreciate the compliment. And I recommend that you listen to the CD, if you get a chance!

    AJ Harbison

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