Why is it that all major league UK rock bands end up turning into U2? Has Bono personally impregnated every arena dressing room with his juices so anyone within 20 feet catches Big Music like scabies? Coldplay began to show symptoms with The Edge-aping guitar desertscape bit on ‘Fix You’ and on this, their fourth studio album, they develop full Bono Bombast Syndrome. Sheesh, what next? Can we expect Chris Martin to grow wrap-around shades and lose four feet from his height by Christmas? An obvious comparison maybe, but Coldplay are the band most likely to be offended by it. They’ve dressed up like 19th century French army peasants ready to storm the musical Bastille in NME. They’ve slapped a stirring painting of Gallic death or glory on their album sleeve. They’re saying they want a Coldplay revolution. They probably thought ‘Lovers In Japan’, a jaunty piano rollock drenched in enough ‘Joshua Tree’ reverb to demolish Red Rocks, was a searing sonic battle between Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cocteau Twins and A Place To Bury Strangers. They yearn to be recast as outsiders violently opposed to the mainstream hegemony but can’t see that by dint of their incessant knack for a stadium-sized chorus they’re so deeply entrenched in the mainstream that they’re our men on the inside, making the most offensive indie racket palatable to the masses with a sprinkle of their melodic fairy dust.
Case in point: when they say they’ve been influenced by My Bloody Valentine and point to the guitar screes and hazy, unintelligible vocals of ‘Chinese Sleep Chant’, they fail to realise the angelic hooklines they’ve couched within the noisefest make the song as mainstream as ‘Umbrella’. It may prompt a million Tarquins to lob hummus at the stereo in disgust but, tellingly, not once during Coldplay’s most adventurous song to date will you phone Apple to complain your iTunes is fucked. See, they don’t have it in them to be Radiohead, making nice-but-vaguely-difficult records for 30-something £50 Men who want to feel ‘cutting edge’ while only buying one record a year, nor would we want them to. Because they are fantastic at what they do, ie sneaking alternative culture into the nation’s subconscious while pretending to be dinner party music. And ‘Viva La Vida…’, like the much-maligned (by the band anyway) ‘X&Y’, is a brilliant collection of songs designed to push Coldplay’s epic envelope far enough to avoid stagnation while never scaring the Nissan-driving horses.
It takes a while to get going, sure: the electro-world-pop instrumental opener ‘Life In Technicolor’ seems superfluous until it’s repeated with vocals as the secret track at the end, while the dark Dubliner throb of ‘Cemeteries Of London’ sounds suspiciously like a Riverdance Halloween special; Martin crooning about night creatures, broken curses, witches and ghost towns while Jonny Buckland’s guitar slices like the softest of Sweeney Todd’s razorblades. It’s not until ‘Lost!’ – all church organ funkiness, stomporific handclap rhythms and Chris pouting like a preacher in a jacuzzi full of strippers – that ‘Viva…’ really hits its stride. ‘42’ opens like a Coldplay piano classic à la ‘Trouble’ with Martin bewailing the voices in his head like a sanatorium balladeer, then breaks into a freewheeling college rock stormer. ‘Lovers In Japan’ provides stadium pop relief and the delicate ‘Reign Of Love’ (complete with Buckland hitting his guitar with an anvil far off in the distance) is as tender as any costume-drama sex scene featuring Kevin Costner unravelling Kate Winslet’s corsets on rolling Irish heathland.
But it’s in its latter stages that ‘Viva…’ truly goes stratospheric: on the magnificent orchestral pop title track, where Martin imagines himself as a deposed French king reduced to sweeping the streets; on the bruised ‘Yes’, like Dandy Warhols and Depeche Mode lost in a desert duststorm; on the Satanic blues hymnal of single ‘Violet Hill’. As the record rounds up with the thumping ceilidh of ‘Strawberry Swing’ and the disjointed Elbow-ish crescendo of ‘Death And All His Friends’ you can only applaud Coldplay’s daring within their Big Music remit. ‘Viva…’, like those revolutionary French peasants at the palace gates, is steeped in traditionalism (Irish folk, Deep South country and blues, churchy classicism) but striving for something greater, grander, better. And with mainstream success guaranteed, by over-reaching themselves Coldplay are perfectly placed to decree the shape of the new rock order with album five. King Bono is dead; long live the kings.
Coldplay – ‘Viva la Vida Or Death And All His Friends’ available now from the NME Store.