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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    Idhrendur on 02.03.2009

    A long delayed comment that I just now remembered to make.

    “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.”

    That’s either a set of chimes/tubular bells or a synth instrument meant to sound like them. Under normal circumstances, I’d guess the latter, but there are a few notes that sound as if someone partially missed with the mallet. It’s easy enough to do on that instrument, and the change in timbre is ditinctive enough to someone who’s done that themselves.

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