No one’s been more painfully aware of Coldplay’s mellow ”Yellow” aesthetic than the band itself: Frontman Chris Martin once joked to EW about ”driving a Bland Rover.” It took a while to do something about it, but Viva La Vida, their fourth and best album, feels emboldened at almost every turn. Jonny Buckland’s guitars howl insistently; Martin has discovered sub-falsetto vocal registers; and a stark, recurring string section lends an edge. But none of these developments dampen the group’s essential melodiousness: Even with this MO, Coldplay can’t help but do ”pretty” proud.
The band’s new producers are Brian Eno and Markus Dravs — of U2 and Arcade Fire fame, respectively — so you won’t be shocked when, at its most poundingly anthemic, Viva sounds a little like The Unforgettable Funeral. Despite how long Coldplay have been dogged with that U2-wannabe tag, they’re clearly not feeling defensive about it. (The nearly vocal-free opener, ”Life in Technicolor,” for one, is a dead ringer for ”Where the Streets Have No Name.”) But the group also cannily borrows from different sources. The pipe organ powering ”Lost!”, a lament about spiritual bereftness, will remind indie rockers of a trip to the Arcade. The dissonant guitar jam in the trifurcated ”42” finds Buckland turning on the Radiohead. Several tracks echo John Lennon’s vocals or Beatles-period orchestration, including the dark, antiwar teaser single ”Violet Hill” and, most deliciously, ”Yes,” an uncharacteristically sexy seduction tale on which the violins switch from ”Strawberry Fields” mode to a Middle Eastern motif.
Other songs satisfyingly elude easy comparisons. Hidden track ”Chinese Sleep Chant” is a guitar-based charger that would be an instrumental were it not for Martin wailing incomprehensibly in the beautifully sludgy background. The ebullient ”Strawberry Swing” throws Afrocentric guitar atop one of those Eno/Dravs soundscapes. Even Martin’s keyboards — which had come to feel like an antiseptic drag by 2005’s uneven X&Y — get put through revitalizing sonic paces. On the blissful ”Lovers in Japan,” it brings to mind an old music-hall piano; on the hymnlike ”Reign of Love,” it transforms into a cathedral instrument.
Throughout, allusions to love, death, ghosts, and God emerge — yet the overriding theme remains Martin’s mostly endearing insecurity. Take the title track (now a single, pimped in an iTunes ad), on which he imagines himself as a paranoid monarch. ”Who would ever want to be king?” Martin asks. ”Revolutionaries wait/For my head on a silver plate!” The confident majesty of the music, however, belies how he and his bandmates have invigorated their rock-lite reign. Protestations aside, the singer can rest assured that it’s still good to be the king. A-
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Coldplay talk Viva La Vida