I’ve had this album in my hands for some time now. I’ve also been putting off writing a review because this album is hard for me to analyze. I feel like after listening to it I should have something profound to say, but I don’t.
Musically, the word soundscape comes to mind. The first time I listened to the whole album I was driving for 2 hours across the farmlands of Idaho. The gold, honey and rust colored fields of grain, the wild, rugged sage brush hills of public lands and the kooky wooden barns falling over were perfect visual accompaniment to the album. There is a variety of instrumentation, organic and electronic: piano, strings, rock guitar, organ, drums, a lyre? and more. The music brings to mind urgent emotions such as regret, yearning, resignation, hope, and frustration. I can hear a variety of influences on this album such as Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Arcade Fire, Air, and of course U2. One interesting aspect of the album is that many of the songs have two distinct parts, almost like the movements of a sonata. If you’ve ever been to a classical orchestra concert, the movements sound like different “songs” but they are part of a whole, and you aren’t supposed to clap between them even though the orchestra pauses for a second. Yes, for example, sounds like a completely new song at about the 4 minute mark, but when you look at the track listing, surprise! its still track 6.
The album, and Coldplay themselves, have been criticized for being too universally palatable. They are definitely polite and don’t venture too far into harsh or experimental sounds. What they do, they do skillfully however. If the listener takes them on their own terms, they are marvelous. On their myspace page, they describe themselves as “very heavy soft rock,” so we must keep in mind, they think of themselves as soft, not hard. The album is lush and brings together a variety of influences and sounds. The variety continues in that some tracks are slow and some are upbeat. The album is cohesive as a whole despite this variety and is knit together with highly skilled hands. It doesn’t break new ground however, and for this it gets a 4.5 for Quality instead of a 5.
Lyrically the songs are interesting and thought provoking. Several songs mention the name of God, death, heaven and the church. I’m always interested at what people have to say about those topics so I listened closely…hmmm I couldn’t really tell what was being said. Some of the songs seem like they are making political references, or perhaps they are literary or historical…I’m not sure. On first listen I thought the words were deep with meaning, hinting at wars and rumors of wars. But on 2, 3 and 4 listens through, it seems the meanings don’t go beyond hints. The title, Viva la Vida, or Live the Life, is perhaps a reference to a play about the life if Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter known for her self portraits depicting the deep suffering of her life. I couldn’t find any information on this however reference however…maybe I’m wrong and its just a nice phrase for an album title. The album cover is a Eugene Delacroix painting of the French Revolution. Another war reference. Maybe its just a theme and hints are all they are meant to be? Its confusing and I leave the record wanting more data instead of being happy to interpret whatever I want. Rolling Stone says what I am feeling nicely:
Coldplay’s desire to unite fans around the world with an entertainment they can all relate to is the band’s strength, and a worthy goal. But on Viva la Vida, a record that wants to make strong statements, it’s also a weakness. Sometimes, to say what needs to be said, you need to risk pissing people off.
I was particular interested in the two songs entitled Lost! and Lost? For my background the titles evoke a religious/salvation idea going about. The interesting thing is that on first listen, the first one (Lost!) sounds almost triumphant, as it to say “I’m lost but I don’t want saving,” and the second (Lost?) evokes more of a weary, humble giving up. The lyrics are the same but the key and tempos are different.
My other favorite song is probably Death and all his Friends because it has a nice instrumental part in the middle, and the lyrics hint at the desire for peace yet not being able to achieve it. It reminds of how humans often yearn for things we cannot have like that verse in Ecclesiastes, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” There is also a second movement to this song which like.
The only song with barely questionable lyrics is, Yes. It is about unrequited lust, yet is amazingly appropriate. It also gets to heart of the problem and reveals the danger involved in acting on lust. The chorus sings: “But I’m just so tired of this loneliness,” but the first verse warns, “my back’s on the line, my back’s on the ropes…night makes a fool of us in daylight.”
For Yes and the ambiguity in general, the album should get a 3 for Clean. The hints at redemption, religion, and the heaviness of live can’t be ignored however. These would give the album a 5. As an average I give it a 4.