There probably won’t be a bigger rock album released this year than Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, unless, of course, Bono and company decide to bless us with whatever they’ve been working on.
And even then, it’s probably still going to be close. Because at this point, Coldplay might be the biggest rock act in the world. Like fellow giants U2 or Radiohead, they don’t release albums so much as they create events, which is probably why they’re celebrating Viva with a string of free shows in London, Barcelona and New York.
But Coldplay’s legendary status isn’t secure just yet. Their first two albums — 2000′s Parachutes and 2002′s A Rush of Blood to the Head — were critical and commercial smashes. But ’05′s X&Y was a disappointment (despite the fact it sold more than 10 million copies worldwide), a record that sounded like a band unsure of its place or its future. So, Viva la Vida is also a make-or-break effort, and Coldplay went for broke, jettisoning everything they’d previously known about making records and working with producer Brian Eno , who took them to Spanish cathedrals and watched bemusedly as they built their own pianos. If there was a goal in making the album, it was “breaking down what we’ve built up before and trying to build something different and hopefully better, or at least worse in a good way,” frontman Chris Martin told MTV News recently. (Read a review of Viva la Vida here .)
What follows below is a track-by-track commentary on Viva by Coldplay themselves. By turns serious, self-effacing, hilarious and full of tips on how to build a tack piano, it’s the biggest rock band in the world at its most unguarded. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty decent way of summing up the new album too.
“Life in Technicolor”
Guy Berryman (bass): We always had it in mind that we were going to start the record with that instrumental melody. And what’s interesting about the song is that there’s actually a full-song version with singing on it, and when we came to putting the album together, it didn’t really work in the sequence of songs, but we felt strongly that it should start with this piece of music. So that’s why we ended up using the first part of it, because that’s how we always intended it to be.
Chris Martin (vocals/piano): You’ll hear [the full-song version] at the end of our next record. The reason we wanted to start this record with an instrumental is to: A) do a good ringtone, which is what that song is, and B) not have to have too much singing everywhere. By your fourth album, people are sort of bored with the singer’s voice, you know?
Will Champion (drums): Jon Hopkins [who is credited as a co-writer] was a friend of Brian Eno’s, and he has this uncanny knack of being able to play any song. You can play him a bit of classical music once, and he’ll be able to play it back to you perfectly, from memory. He’s an incredibly talented guy, and Brian brought him in because I think he wanted to free up Chris from playing keyboards too much, so he could do other stuff.
Martin: What we’ve managed, cleverly, to do on this album is work with people who are much more talented than we are, and pass it off as our own.
“Cemeteries of London”
Martin: [This song] features our first use of handclaps on an album. But not the only time on this album.
Champion: The Spanish flamenco clapping is incredible when you hear it done properly, although ours is a very crude and English version of it. It’s like more of a golf clap — “Good par!” — or some seals.
Berryman: This was one of the first songs we worked on for the record. … We were listening to a song called “Sing” by Blur, and I think we were in America somewhere —
Berryman: — in Detroit, and we were listening to that song in our dressing room. And we went on stage to do a soundcheck, and we were trying to write a song like that. And it’s sort of evolved in various ways and has lots of different versions of itself.
Martin: That’s often how we write, is we listen to something and we think it’s incredible, and we feel stupid for not having anything as good as that, so we go and try to play it. And then, of course, because we don’t know how to do that, we often come up with something new.
Martin: [Explaining the lyrics] Well, the whole record is — if it were a Notorious B.I.G. record, it’d be called Life and Death, it’s just that … maybe because we’ve had some people close to us who we’ve lost, but some miracles — we’ve got kids. So, life has been very extreme recently, and so both death and life pop up quite often. It’s called “42″ because it’s my favorite number. And I think it’s probably in Will’s top three favorite numbers too.
Champion: Yeah, 17 and 11 and then 42.
“Lovers in Japan” and “Reign of Love”
Martin: Guy and Will made the piano you hear on there.
Jonny Buckland: Wait, I did too!
Champion: We were in a studio in New York, this place called the Magic Shop, and it had this thing called a tack piano there, which sounds like an old honky-tonk piano, where you put little tacks in the hammers, so it sounds like more of a harpsichord almost. And so we wanted to use that kind of sound, but we didn’t have a tack piano, so rather than sample it, we went and bought an old piano from the shop up the road from our studio, and we bought a load of tacks, and me and Guy and Jon spent a couple of hours pushing tacks into the piano hammers.
Martin: The only thing is, now we don’t have anything to pin notes up with, so we have a lot of pieces of paper on the floor, and a beautiful piano.
“Yes” and “Chinese Sleep Chant”
Martin: Everyone was complaining to us about people not buying albums, so we thought maybe the reason people don’t want to buy music is because there’s not enough value for money. So we tried to add a bit of value [with the hidden track, "Chinese Sleep Chant"]. It’s as simple as that. It comes from the supermarket.
Champion: One of the main things we tried to focus on with this record is changing vocal identities, because Chris has a very recognizable voice. Just the idea that you can totally change the sound of a song and the sound of a band, just by treating the vocals a different way. So in a song like “Yes,” Chris is singing in a lot lower register, and then in “Chinese Sleep Chant,” it’s drowned in reverb, and he’s trapped behind all these guitars.
“Viva la Vida”
Martin: I think everything we’re trying to do at the moment is about not starting again so much as breaking down what we’ve built up before and trying to build something different and hopefully better, or worse in a good way. And this song is one of our favorites, because none of us are doing anything on it that we’ve ever done before. But we really enjoy playing it. The longer you go on as a band, the harder it is to surprise yourself.
Berryman: It was one of the older songs we had been working on, and we had sort of moved it to one side from the list of songs that were going to be on the record. And there’s this secret fifth member of the group, [manager] Phil Harvey, and he really championed it, as well as a few other people, so quite rightfully so, we dragged it back into the short list. And we had great fun making the video for that song in Sicily, on top of Mount Etna.
Martin: We made two videos for that song; the other one’s on the Internet, which is our favorite video we’ve ever made. We just thought it was funny that in the run-up to elections, everybody dances. … And we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a video of just politicians dancing?” So we did.
Champion: Those are actually Brian [Eno's] handclaps at the beginning of that song, and —
Martin: If you listen very closely, you can hear him complaining about the tempo at the beginning of that song.
Champion: That’s mostly what he does, complain about tempos.
Martin: [In a booming Brian Eno voice] “Oh, that’s much too fast.”
“Death and All His Friends” and “The Escapist”
Martin: Well, this is supposed to be the theme of the album, really. We’re aware of all the bad stuff in life, you know — i.e. Death and all his friends — but that doesn’t mean you should ever give in to it, you know? So we all sing that bit together really loudly, as kind of a message to ourselves: never giving up and never focusing on the bad stuff too much.