Coldplay, the unlikely candidates who have managed to become the new Biggest Band in the World, have arrived at a point in their career where they really can’t win. To release a new album that gives their legion of fans yet another reiteration of what they already like (as they did with the middling X&Y) would result in accusations of laziness at best, arrogance at worst. But to release an album that attempts to play against type (and Coldplay have certainly developed a very specific “type” over the course of three albums) would result in accusations that an already painfully un-hip band is doing the least cred thing possible: trying.
It’s a lose-lose proposition, really, but Coldplay have made it clear which of those two options they’ve chosen for their fourth record. What with frontman Chris Martin’s increasingly bratty public displays, the band’s insistence of their new experimental and politically-inspired direction that includes collaborating with producer Brian Eno, and the album’s war-painting cover art and pretentious, cumbersome title, Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends really is trying hard. Whereas its predecessor responded to expectations of both fans and industry big-wigs who were all looking for “Clocks”-turned-to-11 with bland what-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-do-now paralysis and panic, Viva is a record that, for its pretense and occasional clumsiness, sounds like the work of an act that’s actually ready to face the challenges of being that band. The old king (Bono, obviously) is dead, long live the king and all that.
The album’s supposed revolutionary approach to Coldplay’s trademark sadrock has been greatly exaggerated. The piano isn’t foregrounded the way it has been on the band’s previous records, but it’s used to excellent effect when it does take the lead, as on the first half of the two-part “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love.” In its place, Eno and other man-behind-the-curtain Markus Dravs emphasize the aggressive, distorted tones of lead guitarist Jonny Buckland—as on the reversed guitar loop used on “Strawberry Swing”—and a host of unexpected flourishes, such as the electronically-enhanced strings on second single “Viva la Vida” or, even better, the santur that plays the memorable riff that opens the album on the instrumental “Life in Technicolor.” Even considering the unconventional song structures and the sequencing of tracks in such a way that gives the impression of dramatic time signature, key or dynamic shifts (a trick that ultimately draws too much attention to itself), this is hardly experimental, prog-leaning stuff. Instead, what makes the album’s sound significant is that it’s progressive for Coldplay and certainly for a mainstream pop album. The album’s best moments—the all-uplift build of the soaring “Viva La Vida,” or the organ-driven (and just shy of soulful) “Lost”—suggest a more accessible version of Arcade Fire as much as they invite comparisons to Joshua Tree-era U2 or early Radiohead.
What keeps Viva from reaching the same level of artistry as any of those bands, however, is Martin’s lyrics. Though there’s nothing as gross as the smarmy, emotionally stunted “Fix You,” Martin’s most significant shortcomings remain his lack of focus and an inability to craft an image that actually says something. The album’s supposed political bent is, ultimately, too muddled to make any kind of coherent statement. There’s a preoccupation with soldiers that runs throughout, appearing on lead single “Violet Hill,” “Viva la Vida” and “Lovers in Japan,” but the images never once work within the context of either internal or geopolitical conflicts because Martin’s vagueness is free of any fully realized conflict. As pop-culture political treatises go, the album lands in the company of Southland Tales: When it could mean literally anything, it ultimately means nothing at all.
It’s a good thing, then, that the production is spot-on and the melodies are strong, because the lyrics don’t stand up to any real scrutiny and are occasionally just flat-out awful (the refrain of the otherwise outstanding “42” is “Those who are dead are not dead/They’re just living in my head”). But it’s to the band’s and their producers’ credit that they’re able to take something like, “I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing/Roman cavalry choirs are singing,” and make it work as a nearly anthemic hook. In trying to approximate depth and conflict, which are not the elements on which they’ve built their reputation, the band overreaches. But in trying to find new, unconventional expressions of their outsized, arena-ready pop, Coldplay have come up with the rare major-label pop record that stands to move a ton of copies even as it’s at least a little bit challenging to its primary audience.