After three albums of exposing vulnerability over soft piano chords, Coldplay opts for clutter and disguise, opening and closing on shimmering notes that give “Viva la Vida” a sense of book-like construction, one chapter dissolving into another. The previous efforts, to extend the metaphor, have been collections of stories; “Viva” is a chance to stray, to add layers and textures that in some cases enhance the storyteller or the story, and in others smother the words, usually with melody. In it’s lack of clarity, it asks the listener to return and rummage about, looking to see whether visionary gems are actually hiding within.
It’s a daring move for Coldplay, the British band led by Chris Martin whose leadership has seemingly been turned over to the producers Markus Dravs, Brian Eno and Rik Simpson. The palette is extended considerably since 2005’s “X&Y,” although the territory ventured into seems like nothing new from Dravs, who has worked with Arcade Fire and James, or Eno, whose U2 connection will undoubtedly be blamed/praised for the results here.
“Viva la Vida” is executed on a grand scale, the layers of instrumentation suggesting an enormous, jubilant ensemble. Group handclaps and a church organ, an orchestra, which can bite or tenderly hug depending on the mood, and, in the opening instrumental, a merging of the organic (hammered dulcimers and such) and the electronic that sets the table for the rest of the album. “Strawberry Swing” is the closest the album comes to having a traditional pop single, but even that requires an embracing of Coldplay as a band capable of stepping away from earnest balladry.
Martin, whose voice sits atop only two or three songs and is mostly in the middle of the mix, has moved into exploring mortality (“42” and “Violet Hill”); the distinction between emotions that are active yet not permanent in “Lost”; and good old-fashioned lust augmented by a Middle Eastern hook in “Yes.” He asks simple questions about love, leadership and death; part of the experiment, I’m guessing, is to approach a composition from a point of view of not having answer.
Then there’s the closer “Death and All His Friends,” the most calming of all the tunes in which Martin projects a reassuring presence, offering a hug and simple words.
Time will be the judge on whether this experiment works, if the Coldplay audience is open to the idea of nicking ideas – many of them involving guitars – from U2, Oasis and the Smiths. It is not a timid album and as most bands of their caliber figure out how to compete on a song by song basis, they have at least provided a 45 minute block of music to become engrossed in.