Friday, November 6, 2009

#49. 'Be my mirror, my sword and shield'

Coldplay "Viva La Vida"

For the longest time I had mentally reserved a spot for Coldplay as the 00s version of Hootie and the Blowfish. That is to say that if you were to line up all the bands that existed at some point within the decade in order of overall quality, Coldplay would fall exactly in the middle. Any band that was worse than Coldplay could be said to be bad and any band better than them would be good. They were average in every sense of the word, and even when a given single really worked on a few levels - I'm thinking about "Don't Panic" specifically here - it never had any sort of extra power to make me say that it was anything other than a pleasant diversion. Really, until the release of Viva La Vida last year the only time I'd seen Coldplay associated with anything particularly great in any sense was when the first season finale of The Shield used "Trouble" to soundtrack one of the most intense breakdowns I've witnessed on TV, but even then the song didn't elevate the mood so much as it just was kinda...there. That seemed to be Coldplay's purpose in life; they would never impress me but they'd never annoy me either. All told that wouldn't be a bad fate for any band in the mainstream considering how often those would fall into the latter category.

Maybe it was my previous lack of enthusiasm towards them making even the slightest uptick in quality sound like light years worth of improvement, but Viva La Vida and especially its title track completely took me by surprise last year. I'd heard "Violet Hill" previously and it hadn't done much to change my view of their average nature, but the lalbum turned out to be a surprising near-highlight of 2008, sounding more like the best U2 album since The Unforgettable Fire than another Coldplay album just like the other ones. It was one of the biggest surprises I'd encountered in recent years; sure, bands improve all the time, that's nothing exciting, but a band so seemingly devoted to mediocrity on all levels absolutely killing it for a whole album took me completely off guard. I never thought it was a great album, but it definitely made me sit up and pay attention more times in 45 minutes than I had during the previous three full albums, which was a feat in and of itself given that this was, well, fucking COLDPLAY we're talking about. I guess when you trade in mediocrity any sort of uptick in quality is enough to make you seem somewhat great.

Of course at this point on the list we're not concerning ourselves with 'somewhat great,' and the album's title track is definitely well above that type of faint praise. From the moment those percussive string swells start up it's impossible to deny that this thing is fucking massive on all fronts, and yet it never comes off as trying too hard. It's that sort of effortlessness that makes it work as well as it does, honestly; generally when a band actually tries to make something as sweeping and epic as this it comes across as needlessly pretentious and pointless, but when it's carried off without that sort of effort it works in a myriad of ways. "Viva La Vida" might not be the best example of this, but I'm hard pressed to name another pop song this decade that does this kind of epic sweep, period, let alone do it as well as Coldplay manage here.

Actually, referring to it as a Coldplay song seems a bit wrong given how little everyone who's not Chris Martin does here. Most of the instrumental is anchored by that unstoppable string pulse and various other orchestral embellishments, making it pretty much a Chris Martin solo single with minor contributions from his bandmantes. But those contributions do make for some of the highlights. Given the lack of percussion proper in the song, that timpani roll that drummer Will Campion lets out as the chorus hits just adds to the epic feeling without doing too much at all. Similarly, the lone bit of audible guitar that the song possesses, just after the introductory couplet from Martin, is kinda stunning once it hits; the combination of the guitar's resonating, heavily delayed tone and its placement in the song just makes it stand up as the best guitar thing that guitarist Jon Buckland's done. It never ceases to amaze me how those two small touches are at least half of why I keep coming back to the song, but it's a testament to the band and their producer's that they know how to make such seemingly inconsequential elements resonate so intensely.

It's also worth noting for once Chris Martin's vocals don't edge towards the falsetto needlessly in spite of the melancholy nature of the song. It seemed like it was getting to be second nature to him to milk that - admittedly quite good - falsetto at ever opportunity, but the restraint he shows in that department here does more to underline the song's point than his standard vocals would have. He actually sounds utterly defeated at points, and given that I'd always pictured Martin as a bit of a smug asshole the fact that he can even remotely convey those feelings is shocking enough, which plays so much better in his mid range than elsewhere - the dismissive 'who would ever wanna be king?' that ends the second verse especially mails it. Actually, for a guy whose voice never really appealed to me one way or the other Martin pulls this off rather well throughout, even the wordless vocalizing in the song's bridge works and that's the kind of thing I've grown to hate songs for doing in the past. The song may be his show at the expense of his bandmates more so than usual, but that fact works to its advantage for whatever reason.

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