Friday, June 20, 2008

Van Gogh for your ears: Coldplay’s _Viva La Vida_

Music Review: Coldplay Viva la Vida

This is not a CD that one buys, plops into the car player and expects to enjoy on the first listening. The layers of meaning, the references of literary, cultural, and historical events, the artistic strokes of musical color, everything takes time to soak in to give the album form and substance. I know, this is not something we are used to, in today's world of instant gratification and ipods. This is an album more suited to the likes of T.S. Eliot, while he was writing "The Wasteland," with its endless references to obscure works and mythological symbols long forgotten by the 20th century.

There are many ways to approach this album. First I think it is necessary to understand one of the primary producers: Brian Eno. Most known for his guitar work, Eno is a sound mixer and producer that creates "Soundscape" instrumentals. Imagine taking a Monet painting, or Van Gogh's Starry Night and using brush strokes of sound to create a audio-visual representation of the painting in one's mind. It is much like what most New Age artists do, but Eno takes Pop/Rock elements and turns the soothing sounds of the synthesizers into electric guitars and percussive instruments. For some artists, this type of production doesn't work (see Paul Simon's latest work Surprise, which was a resounding flop.) But for Coldplay, who's Radiohead influences can be easily seen, Eno was a perfect match.

The visual aspects of instrumentation and lyrics on each of the tracks make (almost) each song stand out individually, but also together with the first (and last) track, "Life in Technicolor." The words especially paint scenes that are brought from different historical and cultural references. "Cemeteries in London," with the minor chords and lyrics painting a Gothic London side streets can be seen in the Disney Film Mary Poppins,which, according to online sources , was one of the inspirations for the album. Combine that with the Euro-apathy and cynicism that comes from "Violet Hill", which is a early U2-esque song that combines scenes from late 70's Europe (a time of recession and conflict, where the European currency was down and people mistrusted their leaders, much like today's America.) and sniper ravaged Dublin (probably from the story "The Dubliners" by James Joyce.) makes the gothic part of this album quite vivid, and haunting.

Another brush stroke is that of the single "Viva la Vida," which is arguably about the French Revolution, told from Louis XVI's point of view after Marie-Antoinette lost her head. The painting on the front of the album, along with the scenes from Les Miserables that it invokes, supports this idea. But there are also arguments that it might be about Hitler, or about the current leaders in America (for those who wish to compare Bush and other historical leaders.) More than likely, it's a more general term about Kings and Leaders who have lost their public support.

And then there's "42." Any sci-fi addict will immediately realize that the number 42 is the answer to the meaning of life, as given by the supercomputer in Douglas Adams' work The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This is an ingenious twist by Chris Martin to take the hilarity and ultimate uselessness of having Earth as a supercomputer to figure out the meaning of life, and turn it into an desperate appeal for the Earth, it's glorious mission, and the failure that it apparently has for figuring out "what more" there must be.

I am not, however, saying that this is the most wonderful album I have ever listened to. In fact, the tracks "Yes," and "Strawberry Swing" should have been replaced by stronger tracks. And there are other tracks that would have worked better. Coldplay included bonus tracks on the Japanese Edition of the album which are far stronger tracks, as well as an acoustic version of "Lost!" which is as captivating as Matchbox Twenty's version of "3AM" with Piano only. I do think that X&Y is a better album as a whole, but Viva La Vida is an attempt at a music and literary masterpiece, reminiscent of U2's albums, Sting's Soul Cages or Gorillaz's Demon Dayz.

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