A mouthful of a title inspired by a surrealist Mexican painter; bold cover artwork depicting the spirit of revolution; the recruitment of Brian Eno - esteemed stadium band fixer and Rock's premier out-of-the-box thinker - on knob-dwindling duties; and much talk about new directions, artistic insurrection and experimental makeover. All the signs are there. Have Coldplay finally thrown commercial caution to the wind, ditched their increasingly bland stadium-sized mid-tempo rock, and opted to make a really bold and baffling artistic statement as the world waits with baited breath? Well not exactly.
Akin to the album's artwork, Chris Martin and Co have taken their usual canvas and partially spray painted over it, without ever threatening to disguise what lies at the foundation. Indeed, throughout 'Viva La Vida' (we're not referring to the ridiculously long title from henceforth) you do wonder if Coldplay have simply changed everything around them but their sound. Enrolling Eno and recording in a bakery might be one thing, but we still get echoing, rather uninventive guitar sounds, piano ballads which build to falsetto vocals, and a constant mid-tempo flow right throughout. The 'new Coldplay' is, in truth, rather like the 'old Coldplay' and, not unlike a family who have moved from one country to another; the surroundings may have changed but the workings within remain the same.
That's not to say that Coldplay aren't now working off a broader sonic palette. There's a creepy darkness and shades of funk on 'Cemetries of London' (which incidentally borrows parts of its melody from 'House of the Rising Sun'); a hip-hop beat powers 'Lost!'; and African-sounding guitars intersperse 'Strawberry Swing'. Some will point out that this was the direction the band that recorded 'A Rush of Blood to the Head' seemed most likely to push towards, and they'd have a point. Their last record, 'X&Y', was a hiccup, absent of the creative ambition shown on 'A Rush of Blood to the Head'. In many ways 'Viva La Vida' sees them moving forward in much the way that its predecessor marked a step forward from 'Parachutes'. Songs such as 'Politik', from their second album, wouldn't sound out of place here.
In this regard, Brian Eno's arrival has served to lift them out of an artistic rut. Rather than change or reinvent their sound, he's encouraged them to step back and think differently about the execution of the Coldplay brand. While 'X&Y' contained some fine songs, they were woefully over-cooked and followed a blindingly predictable structure.
On 'Viva La Vida', such verse-chorus-falsetto structure has largely been booted out in favour of something looser, freer, more unpredictable, and yes, more imaginative. Instead of turning right as expected, Martin's gang regularly shift left, but without ever moving too far off the map. Opener 'Life in Technicolor' is a case in point.
Here, an Eno sound-tapestry bleeds to an electro-induced track, not unlike Sigur Ros, before chiming guitars, piano, tight bass line and pounding drums build to a stadium chorus of 'Whoh-Whoa'. Just as it peaks, two minutes in, the track ends without vocals, content in its instrumental form. In the past, Coldplay wouldn't have been able to resist the temptation of completing such a stadium-viable and musically memorable anthem with a rousing vocal track. On this album however, they're more disciplined, focussed and subtle, or as subtle as Coldplay can be.
While there's no obvious huge single on 'Viva La Vida' there's plenty that's eager to please. Chris Martin's melodies still shine and worm their way into your head, none more so than the bounce of '42', a track which begins, in standard Coldplay fashion, with Martin sombrely singing nonsense about "there must be something more" over a lone piano. This before it morphs Radiohead-like into much more upbeat territory before suddenly crashing back to type.
'Lovers in Japan/ Reign of Love' follows, completing a middle section which sees the four-piece at their best. 'Lovers in Japan' begins like a baggy-era James track, but at its heart, this is vintage Coldplay, Martin again pulling all the strings, his bouncy piano track bedding an infectious melody as the rest of the band follow his lead. 'Reign of Love' is also all about Martin; a simple yet beautiful piano piece with a tender vocal. It serves as the best collaborative effort here between songwriter and producer. While Martin provides a beautifully lovelorn track, Eno rains little sound glitches and background sounds down on the track to give it a delicate, ethereal quality, bringing to mind the work of Sigur Ros. Its overall sound paints a picture of floating in space amongst stars. Quite beautiful.
'Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant' doubles-up tracks once again, with 'Yes' seeing Martin sound vaguely menacing and singing in a different octave, while on 'Chinese Sleep Chant', his vocal is totally hidden beneath a layer of guitars.
Title track 'Viva La Vida' is destined to become a live favourite, with its string section driving the song early on with a stab-rhythm, before circling around the tune. The most mundane track here, it's clearly one for the masses. Single 'Violet Hill' follows, while the sun-drenched, chilled out vibe of 'Strawberry Swing' is hard not to immerse yourself within.
The album closes with 'Death and All His Friends/The Escapist', the former again turning back upon the usual Martin at the piano set-up before the track opens out in a manner which will again see it excel when played out in front of tens of thousands of people.
If you've never got/liked Coldplay from their inception, you still won't. 'Viva La Vida' isn't going to magically change your mind or suddenly offer you something you haven't heard before. Though it fixes all the problems apparent on 'X&Y' and is head and shoulders above both that record and Coldplay's legion of imitators, it still shows Coldplay to be deficient in two key areas likely to forever hold them back from the realms of true greatness.
Chris Martin's lyrics are again typically vague and muddled, saying absolutely nothing. Martin has long had difficulty here and the problem remains. Elsewhere, while Martin has contributed a fine tally of lush melodies, and Eno has managed to get the rhythm section of Guy Berryman and Will Champion operating considerably above their game, guitarist Jonny Buckland hasn't seized the initiative. As a lead guitarist he rarely if ever leads from the front and his lack of imagination here prevents Coldplay from darting forward.
'Viva La Vida' does not mark the dawn of a radical new Coldplay. They do what they do and, for the most part, they're doing it as good as they've ever done here. Their fourth album is brimming with some fine songs. It won't blow your mind, though you won't necessarily be reaching for the eject button either.