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%.
The 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.