Viva La Vida

By

I have an aversion to anything that’s the subject of too much hype or popularity.  Such things are suspect and regarded with narrowed-eyes for a long time before I feel comfortable giving them any objective consideration.  Sometimes this hesitation serves me well, The DaVinci Code for example—groundbreaking and controversial, right?  The real story: old news and eye-rolling piffle.  It’s a defense mechanism, you see, and generally it serves me well.  Another case in point is Cheerios–lots of hype for something that’s really just tasteless cardboard byproduct floating in your 2%.

Viva La VidaThe downside to this aversion to popularity is that sometimes I miss out on really good stuff.  Things like Lost, or guacamole, or iPhones.  I held out on all those things for weeks, months and even years only to eventually discover that, by Jove, these are things that cannot be done without (especially iPhones).

So as I sit here, I find myself again outdone.  A few years ago when these Coldplay fellows showed up on my radar, I listened, I kind of liked, I raised one eyebrow and then read or heard someone say that they were the next U2 and I wrote them off.  “Clocks” playing thirty-eight times a day on every station down the FM spectrum didn’t endear them either.

This summer I was at the movie theater and danged if one of the previews before the movie wasn’t a giant advertisement for their new album.  What’s not to hate about a movie-sized ad for some English pop record?  Imagine my distress when I discovered myself thinking that the music in the ad was really quite good.   I gave in to the hype and bought the Viva La Vida album.  I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong (mostly), so here goes: by Jove, this album cannot be done without.

It’s rare for me to like an entire album of songs, and even rarer that I like an album enough that I don’t want to listen to one song without hearing the rest and in the correct order.  Any good record is put together in a deliberate sequence but I contend that part of the greatness of Viva La Vida is that it’s built in such a way that it tells a story, and can only be understood as the sum of its parts.  This is certainly true for other albums but it is such an essential part of this one that I think it bears special mention.  It had to grow on me though.

I bought it and ran it through a couple of times, somewhat interested, though only mildly impressed.  I kept coming back to it though and each time I did, I listened to it a little closer, I heard something I hadn’t before, I understood something I didn’t before.  It’s been a couple of months now and I still keep going back.  There’s more every time.  It’s beautiful.  And every time it’s over I feel like I’m a little bit closer to figuring out what the band is trying to say.

The album sounds amazing, full of light, but I’ll leave discussions of its musical merit to others.  What interests me about it is the way each song works together within the album to tell a story.  I get the definite sense that the work begins in uncertainty, with questions and struggles, and ends somewhere else.  The songs often answer each other.  They develop a dialogue amongst themselves and when the final notes of the album fade I feel like the writer (Chris Martin) has found answers of some sort.  Even though he might not tell us what those answers are explicitly, I’m impressed musically, and lyrically with the idea that something has been found, a destination has been reached.

I’ve seen various interpretations of the album on the internet and in print and theories range from religious enlightenment to claims that its about the life and times of Louis VIII (and I mean the entire album, not just particular songs).  There’s certainly an abstract quality to it that leaves it open to interpretation.  I love that.

Last month the band released a companion EP to the album called Prospekt’s March that has made me fall even further in love with it.  Some of the new songs on the EP are your basic B-side remixes but the new original songs line up perfectly with the Viva La Vida album and even shed more light on its themes.  One of the motifs from the full album, that of floating, or flying, or ascending is the words “my feet won’t touch the ground” and it’s carried on in the new songs beautifully.  The EP is a fantastic coda to what is becoming one of my favorite albums of all time.

If you haven’t experienced this album, you need to.  And you need to spend some time alone with it, listening to it as a whole, without distractions.  The next U2?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  I’ve gone back and listened to Coldplay’s other albums since discovering Viva la Vida and I get the feeling that this might be their Achtung Baby, the album that took a lot of what was already very, very good, and reassembled it into something stellar, something off the charts, something that no one saw coming.  But don’t listen to me and don’t listen to the hype.  Listen to the music.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


41 Comments

  1. Jeff

    Pete…it seems odd to post this without any reference to the Satriani controversy. Obviously you have a different point to make and leave “discussion of musical merit to others”, but with the reference to internet interpretations it just makes me curious if your omission was intentional or if you were just unaware.

  2. Lee Younger

    I’m with you, Pete. Just got this record for Christmas and can’t stop listening! The story the band is telling even winds up being a big cycle because of the the way the synth on the last track is the same as the that of the first… if the entire album is on repeat, it’s this seamless thing that starts where it ended… not to mention the awesome fact that this extremely popular band had the guts to start off a record with an instrumental track… awesome.

    all of that, and the fact that ‘violet hill’ is the freaking bomb makes this the best record a ton of people all have…

  3. Loren Eaton

    My defense mechanism tends to be becoming a late adopter. I’ll jump in with every else but only after the trend in question has become passé.

    Guess it’s about time for me to pick up X&Y now …

  4. Cassandra

    This album is a lot better than I ever thought it could be (especially after X&Y). True, the first time I listened, I still wasn’t sure what to think, but it quickly has grown to be one of my favorites from last year.

  5. Drew

    Ditto everything you said, Pete. I bought VLV in July, and I’m still hearing new things with each listen. Such musical depth! Like you, it took me a while to appreciate it, but it’s become my favorite album of 2008, hands down.

    Good call on the hype aversion! I’m the same way. (Thought I was the only one.) It’s the reason I won’t read Harry Potter books!

    I think I love the album even more after reading your review. Great post.

  6. Chris R

    Seeing them live and then listening to the album gave it an entire new meaning. I highly recommend it, even if your seats are the worst ones in the house (as mine were).

  7. dave herring

    i think its a fairly good album. yeah, anytime there is a lot of hype around something, i’m pretty skeptical. its unfortunate that music isn’t what makes hype anymore…its all marketing. i’m not at all interested in most artists heavily marketed by major record labels. viva la vida is fairly good music, though. its catchy, clever, and well produced. did anyone hear viva la hova?

    http://kevinnottingham.com/myblog/2008/11/15/jay-zcoldplay-viva-la-hova/

    its jay-z and coldplay remix of the album. someone sent it to me. yeah……….no comment.

  8. S.D. Smith

    I am also an out of synch, anti-hype snob. MP3 players? Cellphones? I came on board very late. I’m still not sure this “Representative Republic” thing is going to work out. As the man said, my politics are just left of King Arthur.

    I guess there’s some good reasons for being suspicious of some popular things, but just being proud about “that’s beneath my notice” is not a good one. Sometimes it is a holy reluctance to be swept away in the current of the world’s transient and hollow delight, but sometimes it is a pleasure-hating fear. I want to be bold about my position in Christ, but wary of the entanglements of a culture that deifies vapor. See Ecclesiastes.

    As for Coldplay, I’ve had a very similar experience, but without having bought an album yet. I really like their sound. I put it in the “cool music” category, for now. I am not sure about the depth and meaning side, because I haven’t given it a careful listen. But I have listened to their lead singer in several interviews, that bouncy guy with tape on his fingers. Stereotype about artists frequently saying very silly things? Check. Thankfully we don’t have to follow their religious (and consequently, political, social, etc. view) and can just enjoy the music without being misled in our theology. At least, I hope we can.

    Thanks for the review, Pete. Dang it, now I guess I need to look closer.

  9. evie

    It drives. It surges. It glows. It’s a kind of pointed, revelatory music where I can’t quite put a finger on what it’s revealing, which is at once frustrating and freeing. I’ve heard the Louis VIII rumblings as well, and though it’s an interesting theory, I couldn’t care less about digging much further into the rich, dark brown earth of these songs’ meanings. As a whole (and you’re right, it must be as a WHOLE) the record has an overarching defiant and revolutionary sensibility.

    I recently read an online review where Chris Martin was quoted thusly: “It’s about…You’re not on the list. I was a naughty boy. It’s always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. And this idea runs throughout most religions. That is the most frightening thing you could possibly say to somebody. Eternal damnation. I know about this stuff because I studied it. I was into it all. I know it. It’s still mildly terrifying to me. And this is serious.”

    Speaking of eternal damnation, if one must subject oneself to exercise, “Lost” has the p-e-r-f-e-c-t beat for running. I went for a jog last night and just listened to that song over and again, about 13 times. It didn’t get old. Now that’s saying something. Add to that those buoyant bongo drums that lurk in the middleground of the mix…..this is glorious music.

    And what is it about the combination of hand claps in an echoing room and the trippy electric guitar at the beginning of “Strawberry Swing” that make me instantly grin and fall into a happy trance? Don’t snap your fingers to bring me back. Might be my favorite track.

    I must obtain “Prospekt’s March” soon and very soon. If not for the promise of five more mind-blowing songs, then just for the fact that they spelled “Prospekt” with a “k.” Is it odd that that’s enough for me?

    And in closing, the actual post, Pete, is spot-on, I do say.

  10. evie

    I had Cheerios for breakfast. I disagree wholeheartedly with your slanderous cardboard comment. And when I say wholeheartedly, I’m talking about a really healthy heart because that’s what Cheerios’ wholegrain goodness can do for you. Take that.

  11. JIm A

    Jeff,
    I also eagerly jumped onto this post to see if there was any meat about the Satriani issue.
    Pete, the issue (and I believe there’s a lawsuit that’s been filed) is that viva la vida sounds incredibly like a Joe Satriani song from 2004 called If I Could Fly.
    Joe, (of one of my favorites Surfin’ with the Aliens) has always been the instrumental electric guitar guy and he claims that the melody was copied by Coldplay.
    Here’s the full story and I believe there’s even a link that plays the two songs

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97973449

  12. Aaron Roughton

    Great words for a great album, Pete. Viva La Vida has a skip factor of 0 for me. It’s one that, like Pete said, I listen to from top to bottom, in order. (In college we noticed that the number of times you had to skip a track to make it through a Pearl Jam album went up exponentially with each album they released. Hence the “skip factor.”)

    And I have listened to the Satriani song. The melody line is strikingly similar. It takes me back to when Vanilla Ice said something to the effect of, “Uh uhhh. Nope. We didn’t steal nuthin from David Bowie. See, his song goes dun dun dun dunalundun. But see, Ice Ice Baby goes dun dun dun dunalundun TSSSSS. The cymbal makes all the difference. Word to your mutha.” Has Coldplay responded accordingly?

  13. DrewSmusic

    The Satriani “controversy” is, I think, just vanity. With popular chord progressions and the limitations of the musical scale, motifs repeat. Eventually, stuff sounds similar. The mentioning of it is interesting. The lawsuit is unfortunate.

  14. david

    ultimately, Vanilla Ice ended up admitting that the songs were the same…

    i’m still trying to decide about the Satriani controversy… when i try to sing the melody with Satriani’s song, it’s not a perfect fit, and it seems that he’d have to make the case that the melody was EXACTLY the same, since his original song had no lyrics and the verses are different… and really, there’s nothing new under the sun so certainly Joe is not surprised at similarities, right…?

  15. Nate

    I’m still convinced they both ripped off Ocean Colour Scene’s “Up on the Downside.” I’m sure its just me… a loyal fan.

    I actually bought Coldplay’s first album (Parachutes, was it?) the day it came out and told all my friends to do likewise. They horse-laughed me. Now they’re digging Coldplay and I’ve moved on to Andy Gullahorn… go figure.

  16. Stacy Grubb

    I too have listened to both songs and find the melodies to be pretty similar, though I like Viva La Vida much more. The way I understand it, so many bars have to be identical before it can actually be considered “stolen.” I hear songs all the time that seemingly steal from another, but just on one little melody line. There is a Rascal Flatts song that came out about 2 or 3 years ago that has this one line with a melody identical to Richard Marx’s song “Now and Forever.” I can’t hear the Rascal Flatts song without just knowing that whoever wrote it is a Richard Marx fan. For the record (no pun intended…unless it’s a good one, in which case, pun is totally intended), I much prefer the Richard Marx tune.

    Stacy

  17. rachel

    musical thievery is a fine line … sampling is obvious, but borrowing inspiration is subtle. while the former is made of corruption and perversion, the latter is the highest form of flattery.

    and then there is the foo fighters song that steals a direct line from Yes. di-rect. but i’d bet ten bucks the alt-rock crooners don’t make a habit of listening to the greatness of Yes, so i don’t like to give them credit for copying. it would make them TOO good, if in taste alone.

  18. Matt J.

    Generic Cheerios = cardboard.
    The real thing = glory!
    I almost stopped reading after that dig.

    Oddly enough, I discovered Coldplay BECAUSE of the Satriani controversy. I’ve been a long time Satch fan but wasn’t that interested in what my friends described as “Radiohead for your mom”. But hey, I’m with you. This new album is good stuff. Well crafted.

  19. Mark Cook

    i’m going to address the musical side of coldplay, because they get unfairly criticized because of their enormous popularity. I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t the best band that’s ever rocked the planet, but they are not just throwing out meaningless albums, either. Listen to any of their albums and you’ll find themes and motifs that run rampant. I suggest googling coldplay and vh1 storytellers if you want more detailed information on their opinions about how they come up with their music, because most of their “interviews” are as vague as their lyrics…

    all that said, musically they have a level of sophistication that is surprising for such a popular band. I’ve listened to them for about 6 years now, and each album keeps getting more musically diverse. parachutes was one their best, in my opinion, but it stays largely within a safe world. Songs like yellow and shiver really highlight the first of their many “anthemic” songs.

    if you listen to their songs with a keen ear, though, you’ll hear some incredible subtleties. first, their drummer, i believe his name is will champion, is first rate at accomplishing many of the beats that are so powerful at grabbing and holding you throughout the song. secondly, they have a very diverse musical palette with regards to time signatures.

    i remember taking a music class last year where the professor had us listen to “clocks” to listen for polymeter, polyrythym, etc, and i remember being amazed as she broke down the song into its musical components. there was more there than i thought there would be.

    and if you really want to understand them musically, you have to understand their desire to create giant, anthemic, sing-a-long songs. fix you, scientist, viva la vida, lovers in japan. all these songs are favorites at their shows, and you can see why. with 30,000 fans singing along it’s quite impressive.

    i went to their show this fall and was absolutely blown away. of course i’m a big fan, so that has something to do with it, but they’ve certainly found something with their music. VLV has so many musical infuences, most notably, “yes” has such an middle eastern feel to it.

    listen to it from a musical perspective, listening for beat patterns, melody, and those little surprises that come along. i think you’ll find there’s more there than most people think. great album.

  20. Aaron

    I just have to give Nate props for working Andy Gullahorn into a Coldplay discussion. His music is so doggone outstanding.

  21. Peter B

    Thanks, Pete. I got sick of the “Clocks” overplay and dismissed them myself… then over Christmas, my artistic brother in law whipped out his Coldplay collection and I started thinking “why don’t they play any of these songs on the radio?”

    I’m with Evie on Cheerios. However, holding back can be a good thing; your iPhone will cost half as much and be twice as fast!

    Drew: I read Potter before Potter was hyped, and found it to be quite enjoyable.
    Also, I was country when country wasn’t cool, but that’s neither here nor there.

  22. Caroline

    Ah, how I love this album. Each time I listen to it, it sinks in deeper.

    I heard the single “Violet Hill” months before the full record came out; I was skeptical. It sounded less epic than bog-standard Coldplay. But this record does float, like the review says — it’s like a Viking ship sailing over rough waters and ending up at the crest of a wave.

  23. Matt Conner

    @mattconner

    I love Coldplay. I write about music for most of my living. And I just can’t second all this praise. Compared to the rest of the music world, I think it’s a good to great album, depending on the track. But compared to their others, I can’t stand it.

    People dogged X&Y for being more of the same, but that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I want Martin’s falsetto to move me. I want cheesy, swooning ballads. I want larger than life choruses. I don’t want them to experiment, because if so, then I will just put in my new Animal Collective CD.

    So I hate it that Coldplay gave in to all the negative reviews and decided to change and experiment. And now I have to go elsewhere to find my sweet mother of anthems.

  24. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Seriously, Matt? That surprises me. I’ve heard a few other people tell me that they too love X+Y a lot more. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately and I really like it. But it’s just not in the same league. I think U2’s evolution is a perfect analogy. Joshua Tree is a great album, one of the best, but Actung Baby is simply revolutionary. Same thing applies to Viva La Vida. It’s light years beyond anything Coldplay has ever done.

    That said, I don’t blame long time fans for being disgruntled over it. The same thing happened to U2. You come to expect one thing from a band and you feel somewhat betrayed when they deliver something entirely different. I think, though, that time will tell that Viva La Vida is one of the great albums of this generation. I’ve never heard anything remotely like it.

  25. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Here’s a very interesting analysis of Joe Satriani’s song vs. Coldplay’s:

    I’m not sure what I think about this. My gut reaction is that it’s ridiculous. Sure the two songs have a lot of similarities but their differences are just as important aren’t they? I’m not a musician though, I don’t know. I’d be interested to hear what some of you who are song writers and musicians think.

  26. JJ

    My complaint about all these cries of plagiarism is that while the songs MAY sound a little similar (I just listened to the clips from both songs at the link posted above), they’re not the exact same song. How many different songs can there by anyway? Some are bound to sound slightly similar. And there are always going to be people claiming someone ripped off their song. And the claim is usually filed against a huge band who has a huge CD in stores. I think it’s all silliness.

    As far as Viva La Vida, it took me awhile to get into it. I was a fan of X&Y and A Rush of Blood to the Head (not the whole albums though). So I admit I did want more of the same. But Viva La Vida is excellent after repeated listens. I find that if an album doesn’t instantly hook me, it’s lost me. But if I give those albums a chance (which I need to do more often) then I’m usually pleasantly surprised. Viva La Vida is one of those albums. While I can’t say I love every song on it, and I haven’t listened to it in a few months, I was definitely in my top 5 albums of 2008.

    I loved the Prospekt’s March EP too. I wish more bands would release EPs with B-sides that didn’t make it on their newest CD.

  27. Kristen

    Pete,

    It seems you’ve made many of your previously averted, positive discoveries with the help of “Jove”…..you should definitely give him more credit and props! 😉

  28. Randall

    I’ve always had that same impression with Coldplay myself. When I first heard them and their songs a thousand and one times on the radio and tv, I just shooed them away. But then I heard “Viva la Vida” and then I started to pay attention.
    I’ll admit, I first reacted mostly to the album art. I liked how they used Delacroix’s artwork as a palette to place their art with. I then decided to by ‘Viva la Vida’ from itunes when it was released as a single and was absolutely floored. Up until recently (sorry, Brooke Fraser became heard) it was the most played song on my player. I then got the whole album and, although it did take a while to really discover the songs and understand them, I think the album is truly brilliant. I agree with you with the idea that it portrays a story and you can feel that.

  29. Tony Heringer

    My story for this album falls into the category of “six degrees of separation.”—Rabbit Room style. While ferrying Jason Gray to Atlanta Fest this past summer, he treated my daughter to various tunes from his iPod. One of the tracks was the opening cut from this album. I think we may have listened to some more of it later on, but Jason was enthusiastic about the album.

    I had heard X&Y on a flight sometime back and enjoyed it. Given what I’d heard from the band and Jason’s feedback I bought the album. Since that time, my wife and daughter have both gotten into this one too. I agree with the comments on this being a concept album. I have tracks that I like, but enjoy the album as a whole.

    Jeannine ZOna said “
    Cheerio’s… what are they?!” http://www.cheerios.com/ourCompany/History.aspx A cereal that needs sugar and lots of it. 🙂

    And no one has mentioned the “Creaky Boards Controversy”? Here’s the songwriter lamenting to cyperspace.

    Whether its true or not he did have fun with it. So are they Coldplay or just Replay?

  30. Chris Yokel

    Viva La Vida is definitely a brilliant album. One of the things I love the most about the album is the historical underpinnings that weave throughout the songs. For instance, the historical aura of nighttime London that Martin conveys in “Cemeteries of London” And you’v got that mixed with the typical Martinesque soul-searching. One of my favorite lines: “God is in the houses and God is in my head/and all the cemeteries in London/
    I see God come in my garden, but I don’t know what he said/For my heart, it wasn’t open, not open” Honest, eerie, poetic. Good stuff.

  31. Ben

    I’ve always liked Coldplay, but felt that they had a fundamental flaw: they never know when enough is enough. White Shadows on X&Y is a great example. It starts off great, but becomes more and more aggressive and monochromatic until you just want to turn the whole thing off. Repetition can be powerful, but it can also be overkill.

    The greatness of Viva La Vida for me was the color and nuance that Coldplay added to their song writing. The exploration of their themes and melodies were much more intricate and tastefully done. Perhaps Brian Eno is as much to thank as Chris Martin and the rest.

    Seriously though, how can the same lyricist who pens Viva La Vida also write the kindergarten lyrics of Lovers in Japan? The mind who crafts “I used to roll the dice/Feel the fear in my enemies eyes” also creates “Soldiers you’ve got to soldier on?” Hit and miss to say the least.

  32. Tony Heringer

    Ben,

    Perhaps that’s why they are compared to U2? Remember this gem from “Running To Stand Still” – “I took the poison from the poison stream” I love that song but hate that silly line.

  33. Tony Heringer

    One other thing, I’m listening to Jason Gray’s “Acoustic Storytime” and wondering when we’d be favored with a review of this fine work?

    Barliman? Anyone?

  34. Chris Slaten

    When Parachutes first came out I decided to appreciate both Coldplay and Elbow from a distance. There was something so familiar (particularly with Coldplay it was Martin’s Matthews/Bono/Mayer/York voice) and catchy about both of them that I assumed they may get old fast if listened to too intently (and I wear CD’s out when I buy them). Since then I have enjoyed Coldplay from a distance. Great for movies, the radio and other peoples cars, but not for anything too focused. Your review, Bob Boilen’s brief mention of it for his 2008 review and the fact that Brian Eno is involved are pushing me towards actually buying in and trying to see if it is the type of record that is worth learning from.

    “by Jove, this album cannot be done without.” Wow.

    Cheerios: “The real thing = glory!” Agreed.

    Thanks.

  35. Ben

    Tony,

    Actually I think the line that takes the cake is one from Rob Thomas’ Little Wonders: “Let your clarity define you.” Sheer beautiful nonsense.

  36. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Thanks to the “related posts” feature, I found this review I didn’t know existed. 🙂 Viva la Vida made me a Coldplay fan. I bought it on a whim at Borders (RIP), and it felt like something revolutionary, magical, and wondrous. Man, I wore this album out. It might still be my favorite of theirs.

    And then, just as I became a fan, it became really cool to hate them, forever dooming me to irrelevance in the tastes of the music hipster crowd. Story of my life…

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