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‘Viva La Vida’ Turns 10: How Coldplay Made the Last Massive Experimental Rock Album

‘Viva La Vida’ Turns 10: How Coldplay Made the Last Massive Experimental Rock Album

‘Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends’ was released in the U.S. 10 years ago

Coldplay do not trade in mystery. Depending on your vantage point, Chris Martin is either a blank slate onto which we can project our most universal emotions, a remarkable doof constantly in awe over how big and beautiful the world can seem, or some sublime combination of the two. He’s never been anything but transparent about the guiding forces behind his band, who are among our most reliable remixers of the rock canon. 

Martin isn’t interested in being cool, or particularly original, deflecting the allure of what makes most of his contemporaries tick. In a sense, it’s kind of a relief that he’s so open with his primary mission to make you feel the most things by way of the most gorgeous sounds he’s ever heard. But in the years before 2008’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, which turns 10 on Sunday (June 17), Coldplay wanted something more — and ended up making the last great big experimental rock record as a result.

Viva La Vida fit snugly into that old narrative of the world’s biggest band almost really going for it, working with a producer and instruments outside of their comfort zone for some approximation of Achtung Baby or Kid A or Sgt. Pepper’s — at least that’s how Viva La Vida was written about upon release, somewhat disparagingly. This is true to a degree, but it undersells what the album turned out to be, which is one of the last meaningful collisions of big indie and mainstream rock. We haven’t seen another super-popular, multi-platinum rock record with a No. 1 single really swing for the fences with these sort of gestures, channeling Arcade Fire’s arena-rock aspirations to the mainstream and actually getting there — especially given the trajectory of popular rock after Viva.

After 2005’s secretly great X&Y landed with a thud in most critic’s circles, including a devastating pan from the New York Times, Martin had a chip on his shoulder and came to a crossroads: Do you go on making the same kind of records with diminishing returns, or do you ask Brian Eno for a change of pace? He chose the latter, and the initial prognosis was scathing. “Your songs are too long. And you’re too repetitive, and you use the same tricks too much, and big things aren’t necessarily good things, and you use the same sounds too much, and your lyrics are not good enough,” Martin claims Eno told them, during an interview with Rolling Stone just before the album was released.

The band was tentative in the years leading up to Viva, with reports circulating of an impending five-year hiatus while bassist Guy Berryman was off raising his baby daughter. This didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Martin and the band voyaged around to Spanish-speaking countries to record in churches, sort of a distant cousin to what their Canadian counterparts pulled off for 2007’s Neon Bible. He was reading Victor Hugo, specifically Les Miserables. Justin Timberlake was on the brain, at least when it came to pure surface-level aesthetics.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this might mold into a colossal mess, but they rolled with the more valuable parts of Eno’s advice. Viva La Vida turned out to be a rich, transitional release, borrowing from their most disparate core of influences. It’d be tough to argue that anything sounded the same here, even if the songs were at times longer than ever, slaloming off into complex outros once the pop structures had run their course. Martin was singing about notably bigger and broader topics: death, love, war, memory. This was simultaneously the most Coldplay record, but also the most unlike anything they’d done before.

Plenty has endured in gyms and supermarkets: the familiar woah oh ohh-a-ohs of “Viva La Vida,” the sneaky danceable propulsion of “Violet Hill.” “Strawberry Swing” still astonishes in new ways, the sonic approximation to chasing a handful of gumdrops down with sangria. And “Lost!” never needed JAY-Z to become one of their most reliable stompers.

But those longer tracks, the ones that unspool a little more gradually, are where Viva truly earns its character. “Yes” is a downright sidewinder — and possibly the band’s most complex song, building with these frantic-then-deliberate string arrangements that could’ve been ripped right from a Jonny Greenwood score, all the way to its cosmic outro. Both it and “Lovers in Japan” showcase their travelogue approach, roping in a honky-tonk piano and mellowing out into “Reign of Love” in the back half. Coldplay’s international cherry-picking never feels opportunistic; instead, it’s consistent with the record’s translation and their philosophy writ large: Whether it’s live the life or long live life, they were marveling at more parts of the world than ever before.

It’s hard to picture another rock record of this magnitude and ambition coming around and seizing the charts quite like Viva. You have Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots, probably the two biggest rock-adjacent acts in the world right now who are certainly making big, loud music. They seem too plugged into the current pop zeitgeist, and wear it well, to attempt the big experimental rock record. There’s the outdoor amphitheater tier, which is comprised of artists like Arctic Monkeys, The 1975, and Tame Impala. Each band in this group has a record like Viva in them, if they haven’t delivered on it already. But if “Give Yourself a Try” isn’t taking over the charts, then it’s hard to imagine the industry supporting a multi-platinum effort that got this weird. Rock has splintered and fractured off to the point where bands that debut with a record like Parachutes don’t even have a prayer of reaching the heights of Viva or headlining festivals. 

After Viva, Martin has always had the endgame in mind, choosing to treat each record “as if it’s our last, because that’s the only way to proceed.” Coldplay almost leaned further into entropy with 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, a busy concept album that paralleled M83 in interesting ways. They struggled to find a path forward after that, largely reacting to Martin’s public split with Gwyneth Paltrow with the moody, muted Ghost Stories, and then reacting to that with the exploding kaleidoscope of A Head Full of Dreams. This is a band interested in a different sort of evolution, one driven by an almost admirable commitment to whatever relevance looks like. It’s only fitting that their record most preoccupied with the end of things could wind up being the last of its kind.

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