When Coldplay opened 2005’s X&Y with a sly riff on Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (known to movie fans as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey), the message was clear: The wimpy Brits behind “Yellow” had completed their studies at Bono’s School for Boys and would now be turning their attention to weightier fare. Chris Martin and his mates, the music told us, had become men.
Well, it’s too bad they already used that bit of bombast, because on their new album, Coldplay truly grow up. Viva La Vida is a bold creative leap forward from a band that until now has been celebrated as much for its ability to sell rock records to young women as for its artistic vision. While X&Y demonstrated Martin’s knack for imbuing the everyday with grandeur, this consistently thrilling effort fills a much larger sonic canvas with much larger ideas.
Two shifts are immediately apparent. The first is Martin’s voice, which is operating in a lower register; though romance has always been a big part of Coldplay’s music, sex has not. Yet in “Yes,” a trippy acoustic shuffle, Martin evinces real swagger as he laments a lover’s indecisive ways. “I’m just so tired of this loneliness,” he moans, emphasizing not only an emotional absence but a physical one, too. Later, as church bells toll in “Viva La Vida,” Martin (convincingly!) portrays a king, or a rock star, reflecting on a life of excess: “I used to roll the dice / Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes.”
The other obvious change — one no doubt inspired by Brian Eno, who produced Viva La Vida with Markus Dravs and Rik Simpson — is the way in which Coldplay color their twinkly guitar rock with traces of various world musics. “Lost!” rides a tribal drum-circle groove; “Yes” throbs with sweet-and-sour Bollywood strings; “Strawberry Swing” revolves around Jonny Buckland’s African-pop guitar line. Some purists might balk at such appropriations, but each element finds a surprisingly natural place in the band’s wide-open sound.
Even when they’re not looking beyond the borders of home, they do satisfyingly weird things to their music, as in “42,” which starts out in plaintive piano-ballad mode, then transforms without notice into a juddering psych-punk jam. “Violet Hill” pulls a similar fake-out, bludgeoning a delicate Eno-style soundscape with big Black Sabbath guitars.
For all of Coldplay’s experimentation, though, there’s no doubting that Viva La Vida, with its sturdy melodies and universal themes — think love, war, and peace — is an album meant to connect with the masses. (Arenas have been built for less than the climax of “Death and All His Friends.”) The band’s triumph lies in how exciting they make that prospect seem.