Albums of the Decade #4: Viva La Vida

It’s either love ’em or hate ’em when it comes to Coldplay. Sure, some of the criticisms are valid: they’re built as an arena-ready rock band, complete with vapid lyrics and monosyllabic choral moans. But you can count me squarely in the “love ’em” camp. Coldplay’s success validates for me that commercial doesn’t always have to sound terrible.

For their fourth album, Coldplay promised a different sound, a more lush, textured environ than their previous work. Enlisting the help of uber-producer Brian Eno (among several others), the band was able to fulfill that promise while not tinkering too much with the formula that made them global superstars. Make no mistake: this is no Achtung Baby or Kid A. No, the changes here are more subtle, but no less effective. Chris Martin claims that the album’s nuanced lyrical imagery resulted from his reading copious amounts of Charles Dickens during the recording process. Maybe, but we should also probably attribute it to the band’s continued artistic growth.

Viva La Vida opens with “Life in Technicolor”, an instrumental atmospheric piece that bookends the album. What comes in between is a wide range of sounds and songs: the string-infused anthem of “Viva La Vida”; the organ / stomp of “Lost!”; the kinetic activity of “Lovers in Japan” melding into the quiet balladry of “Reign Of Love”; the sweetly intoned “Strawberry Swing”. A more globally-influenced sound, Chris Martin’s experimentation with his lower register, rumors of delays in production…there was plenty that could’ve gone wrong with this album. But these risks and the extended production time paid exponential dividends as Coldplay expanded their sound and Viva became the most legally downloaded album ever. Even the “leftovers” that didn’t make the album are incredible. (See “Glass of Water”, one of the band’s live staples now. How did this one not end up on the album?) Some critics want to knock Viva La Vida for its universal themes, but personally, I think that’s one of the album’s strengths. Love, death, life, ghosts…honestly, what else is there worth singing about?

Is this the most important music of the decade? No, not by a long shot. But it IS an incredible album from one of the world’s biggest bands at the height of their creative and sonic powers. Easily one of the most listened-to albums of the past 10 years for me.

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