10.09.2008

"Viva La Vida," Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:04 am

The title track on Viva La Vida, i.e. “Viva La Vida” (track seven), was the next song on the CD to attract my attention. In many ways, it’s a very appropriate title track in that it epitomizes many of the themes of the album. It’s energetic, it deals with revolution and it has many nuances and details that lift it from being a good song to being a great song. The lyrics–the meaning of which is hotly contested on sites like www.songmeanings.net–seem to deal with the deposition of a king: “I used to rule the world / Seas would rise when I gave the word / Now in the morning I sleep alone / Sweep the streets I used to own….” There are multiple layers of meaning to be found in the song; it seems like it could equally be a description of a historical event (many people think it’s the beheading of Louis XVI), or a whole-song extended metaphor for something else, perhaps losing someone. In either case, the lyrics are very well written and the music is an excellent support for them.

In “Lost!”, as I wrote about, the harmonic base–that is, the instrument primarily responsible for filling out the harmony–was a pipe organ; in “Viva La Vida,” it’s the string section. The song opens with an energetic and syncopated chord progression by the strings, and they play an indispensible role throughout the song. Underneath the strings, the bass drum beats out steady quarter notes, also throughout the song, which drives the rhythm forward even more. Interestingly enough, for all the rhythmic drive, there is no drum beat anywhere to be found–only the steady kick drum. The rhythms of the strings, voice and other instruments here and there are enough to fully carry the song and give it more energy than you would expect.

There are several musical details in the song that took me a while to notice. Listen carefully during the chorus, on beats two and four, and you’ll hear a bell or a chime playing way in the background, in the musical space typically occupied by the snare drum. It’s a nice subtle touch that enhances the song’s revolutionary feel–perhaps evoking bells being rung to celebrate liberation, for instance.

It’s also interesting to listen to the higher strings–in the range from middle C to an octave higher (if you know where that is). They undergo several variations and are arranged very nicely. Immediately following the first verse (“…streets I used to own”), they play two alternating notes about two and a half octaves above middle C, A-flat G A-flat G, which form the basic motive for that group of strings. During the first half of the second verse (“I used to roll the dice….”), they play a cool countermelody that is the only musical element besides the syncopated rhythm and the voice. During the second half of the second verse (“One minute I held the key….”), they invert the two alternating notes and instead of alternating down, alternate up: A-flat B-flat A-flat B-flat, before returning to the countermelody for the last two lines. The chorus uses them mainly in whole notes to fill out the harmony. In the third verse (“It was a wicked and wild wind….”), they alternate down again, but in the middle range: A-flat G A-flat G, in a syncopated rhythm of their own, more energetic than the rhythm of the A-flat B-flat idea. And in the second half of that verse (“Revolutionaries wait….”), they return to whole notes, their rhythmic space taken up by a honky-tonkish piano (also kept in the background). This is a sign of good arranging: they don’t play the same thing each time but actually develop a musical motive. Really good stuff.

I have to make mention of the ending: the song fades out on a weird-sounding choir singing the chords of the original string progression (without the syncopation). This is my least-favorite part of the song; I feel like they could have at least layered Chris Martin’s voice rather than using synth voices. But it’s not bad enough to ruin the rest of the song, and if this is the only thing wrong with it, it’s a song that’s a heck of a lot better than most.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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10.08.2008

Shortly after falling in love with “Lost!”, “Death And All His Friends,” the final track on Viva La Vida, caught my ear (so to speak). It’s really two songs, “Death And All His Friends” and “The Escapist”; the latter is a reprise of sorts of the electronic-music stylings of the first song (“Life In Technicolor”) with some added lyrics, bringing the CD full circle. I always enjoy pieces that are cyclical in that way, because it provides a very satisfying sense of internal coherency. For those interested, my favorite example (and one of the very best) is in Morten Lauridsen’s art music work Mid-Winter Songs, where the very striking theme from the first movement returns in the middle of the fifth and final movement. I wrote a paper on this piece in college, and I’m sure I’ll eventually get around to writing about it here. In the meantime, suffice it to say that I appreciate Coldplay’s decision to bring the end of their CD back to the beginning. But my main focus will be on the first song.

“Death And All His Friends” is itself almost two songs, or at least a song in two very distinct parts. The first part is very simple, just soft piano, voice and a sparse electric guitar, telling a very brief story of a relationship that was entered into too quickly but reassuring that it’s all gonna be alright. I have to mention that I love the sound of the piano here: it has a very dark and mellow (as opposed to a bright) tone, which is not only the way I like all pianos to sound but very appropriate to the song’s character.

Suddenly at the 1:18 mark, the song changes: it immediately falls into a faster tempo, a (slightly) brighter piano and guitar take over, and the energy begins to build very quickly. It has the feeling of excitement swelling up and about to burst. And at 1:48 the burst comes. You can imagine the musicians headbanging and rocking out like nothing else on the hammered chords–this is another part of the CD that I can’t help moving to even when I’m driving. (I’ve always had a very physical, visceral response to music, but as far as popular music goes this CD takes the cake, and even the cookies and punch too.) It then “settles,” while still being very energetic, into a standard 4/4 groove, before hammering the same chord progression again. But this time, the progression adds an extra beat to accommodate two sudden solo guitar notes, and transitions seamlessly to an atypical but rocking 7/4 rhythm, with the solo guitar soaring over it all. It’s a climax so huge as to be almost transcendent. After one time through the 7/4 phrase, the whole band together sings twice, almost as a chant: “No I don’t want to battle from beginning to end / I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge / I don’t want to follow death and all of his friends….” The instruments proceed with a quickly-paced denouement and drop out individually, and the song fades out into silence and then back in with the electronics of “The Escapist.” This is another part of the album where it leaves the listener wanting more–I feel like four repetitions of the chant wouldn’t be out of place at all–but again, it’s made me listen to this song, like, three thousand times. One of the greatest climaxes of any album I’ve heard.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of Last.fm: click on the black play button in the player on the right side of the page.

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10.07.2008

"Lost!", Viva La Vida, Coldplay

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:44 am

The first song on Viva La Vida that I fell in love with–only the second time I listened to the CD, in fact–was “Lost!”, track number three.

The first thing that stands out about this track is the beat, a very strong one with powerful bass and tom hits and handclaps for a snare–a beat more reminiscent of electronic music, perhaps, than rock. I forgot to mention in my post yesterday that I rock out in my car to this CD probably more than any other CD I’ve ever listened to, and this track’s beat is one of the reasons for that.

The second thing that stands out is the use of Coldplay’s signature pipe organ sound; it forms the harmonic base of the song, playing the progression Em – C – Bm – D. The cool thing about that progression, though, is that the Bm and D chords have a G added to them, so they actually become something like a Bm add6 and a D add4:

The added note is a nice detail that gives extra character to a good progression. I like the light “cluster” aspect it gives the D major chord; it seems reminiscent of something Eric Whitacre might do.

I also really like the melody in the song, particularly in the verses. It’s just really catchy, and very singable, and all the lyrics are excellent as well. The melody in the chorus is a good counterpart to the melody of the verses: it’s more expansive and leaves more space, and also switches up the harmonic rhythm with the quicker chord changes on the words “tried to cross.”

Every element on this CD seems pitch-perfect (no musical pun intended), especially in terms of proportion and balance. The form of this song, for example, is perfectly timed and balanced; it doesn’t feel like the chorus is too short, or it goes on too long at the end compared to the length of the rest of the song. The only thing I might even consider complaining about is that the song seems too short because it’s so good–give me another verse, or two, or three, I want to hear more! But that becomes typical of much of this album. Restraint, rather than excess, is the guiding principle. And, of course, that leaves listeners like you and me eager to hear it again and again.

You can listen to the song here, courtesy of iLike.com: click on the play button under the heading “Song Clip.” You can watch a video of Coldplay performing the song live on that page, as well; be forewarned that the video will start playing on its own once the site loads.

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10.06.2008

Viva La Vida, Coldplay: Revisited

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:07 am

First of all, I must apologize to you, my loyal readers, for not posting for an entire week–I hope I haven’t lost any of you in that time. It’s been a busy week at work and at home, and I’ve had little (or no) time to blog. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise!

In the past few weeks, with only a very few brief interludes, I’ve only been listening to one CD in my car:

Viva La Vida, Coldplay

And the more I listen to it, the more I love it. I wrote in my first post about the CD that it hadn’t eclipsed Coldplay’s album X&Y as my favorite, but that it was still a great album. Now, a month later, I must confess it still hasn’t risen to that level; but it has definitely risen above many, many other albums to become one of my all-time favorites. Like I said, I’ve been listening to it almost continuously in my car for a whole month, and it keeps getting better and better.

Listen to the CD; it’s the sound of a really good band becoming a great band. The more I listen to it, the more I discover and the better it gets. I’ve uncovered multiple layers of nuances in each song, in the lyrics and in the music. I could go on and on. But instead of doing that, I’ve decided to do a week’s worth of posts about the album, focusing on individual songs in the order I fell in love with them. So sit back with a glass of your favorite wine, relax, and enjoy a week of Viva La Vida!

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