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Monday, 9 June 2008

Review: Coldplay's Fourth Album, Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends

Since I do like some popular culture, and I understand the need for exuberance and light-hearted joy in life, it feels churlish to review a Coldplay album with too much gravity. However, three things have arisen in connection to the new album, that require comment. The first is the use of the Brian Eno card (genius producer reinventing a band's sound); the second is the general response so far from reviewers, which has tended to suggest the album is so-so (a three star state) but no barn-burner; and the third is the idea that bands like Coldplay are, in any meaningful way, able to finetune, or even transform, their "sound" - raising the critical issue, can style be more than fashion, can style be purposeful? I think it can be (Talking Heads had sonic shifts of note; as did The Beatles; as did Scott Walker).

Well, firstly, Eno's mainly a hack by now. His works such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts are masterful, and significant. His work with U2 was formative. By now, it hardly matters how he twiddles the knobs for a Paul Simon or Coldplay disc, surely. As a hired hand, he has the ability to add a sheen, to suggest nuances, or redirect energies. But he can't add soul; merely texture. As such, the new album under discussion here sounds very much like the upbeat work of U2, Simple Minds, and even, astonishingly, the unhip Supertramp. In short, this is work from around 1975-1995, that shimmered, and promised hope - and was counter to the more alternative and avant-garde work that Eno himself had pioneered. The fact that in photoshoots Coldplay are dressed like they're about to go over the Paris barricades, in rags and little beards, doesn't mean they're revolutionaries.

Which leads to question three: need they be? What is their music for? Transformation, aesthetically, or politically? No. Unlike, say, John Lennon's work, this is music bled entirely free of any commitment or position, except the most "universally" humane. Life good. Death bad. So, it's capitalist pop music, meant to please, and appease, the consumer, and add lustre to a summer. In this way, only, is it offensive, and even reprehensible. As well-made product, it is actually as good as their last album - and often as artificial (which sounds intriguing and ambient in places, a la Eno).

It seems unfair to critique a band that seem to have genuine social and political concerns, but if they do, they might want to spend a little less time trying to shift 9 or 10 million units, and more trying to generate a sound that relates to the period they're in. Or maybe not. Perhaps simply being decent, hardworking craftsmen amid much noise and violence is their reactionary stylistic redress. I'll listen to it, certainly, and even enjoy it. But I'll also hunger for more.
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