I wasn’t quite sure what I expected when I bought Coldplay’s new album earlier this week—I suppose I expected it to be a lot of patented sappy love songs and stadium anthems for the middle class preppies in the suburbs (I bought my copy in Starbucks, after all). But I have to say, this album shocked me—in a very good way. Is this really Coldplay? These songs are inventive—even progressive! They still have that ethereal “to the rafters” grandeur to them, but—amazingly—they are more restrained and nuanced than anything they have ever done.
From the gorgeous, electronic instrumental opening (“Life in Technicolor”) to the ghostly hidden coda track (“The Escapist”… aka part II of “Death and All His Friends”), this is an album of lush musical diversity and sonic subtleties. It’s exquisite. It’s not radio-friendly in the least (apart from the title track), but it may very well prove to be their most popular album. It’s certainly their best since Parachutes.
It’s also an album that—in some ways—represents what an album could (should?) be in this era of the death of the album. It is fitting that Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” song has been in all the iTunes ads this spring. This is an album for the iTunes age. With ala carte music consumption, music has re-oriented itself to songs over albums, randomized playlists over coherent LPs. Viva la Vida is an album in the sense that it is one collection of songs released together, but other than that it seems to be something altogether different. These songs have little to do with one another, and some sections of some of the songs have little to do with other sections.
Indeed, I wonder how we can categorize “songs” in the context of this album. Several tracks on Viva have more than one musical thought going on. Track 5 is the clearest example: “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love” is a couplet of an upbeat rock number and a mournful electro-ballad, respectively. You might say the latter (which is my favorite song on the album) compliments the former, but I’m hard-pressed to see them as anything more than two completely separate emotional moments juxtaposed because, well, sometimes our moods change that fast.
Other songs on the album don’t even name their dual sections. Track 6, “Yes,” begins as an eastern-inspired minor chord anthem about sexual frustration (featuring Chris Martin singing in the lowest key he’s ever attempted) and then becomes a breezy shoegazer romp (apparently called “Chinese Sleep Chant,” but not advertised as such on the album cover). Same goes for the final track, “Death and All His Friends,” which ends on a rousing, rhythmically-daring note, only to be followed by the aforementioned fade-out song (“The Escapist,” also unadvertised). Many of these multi-section songs could easily have been split into separate tracks, but they weren’t. Why? It’s almost as if Coldplay is rewarding iTunes buyers by giving them two-for-one specials; or perhaps they are just showing how interesting an album of haphazard shifts and unpredictable turns can be.
The album feels totally incoherent, but in a coherent sort of way. It feels like an album of the 21st century, where our only frame of reference is, in fact, disjointedness. The album mimics our digitally fragmented lives, when everything is on shuffle and our attentions and cares and feelings are so interchangeable and fluid that sixty minutes of musical narrative (even five minutes of one song) have a hard time connecting with us. Indeed, Coldplay’s lyrics on this album are hardly narrative at all—just words and thoughts and random images, strewn together paratextually in the way our laptop screens bind together our images, emails, memories, interests, and connections. We are a windows world now; our interfaces are multifarious and rarely singularly focused. Sometimes we feel mournful (“Cemeteries of London”), sometimes joyful (“Strawberry Swing”), but hardly ever do we feel wholly one or the other. Coldplay’s album is the musical embodiment of this.
The title alone (Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends) shows how eclectic this album really is. The use of Spanish indicates the international feel of the music, and the nonsensical bonus title shows that the album is, well, anything you want it to be. Viva borrows bits and pieces of world music (Middle-eastern, North African, Latin American, etc) and borrows from a wild array of styles—everything from shoegazer to tribal organ to electronic minimalism. It’s pastiche of the highest order, and I absolutely love it.