And not just because it was the most commercially successful rock album released in 2008 (it sold more than 2.2 million copies here in the U.S.), or because it topped the charts in something like 17 countries worldwide. Though, in today's doom-and-gloom industry, those stats are rather noteworthy.
No, what makes Viva such a remarkable accomplishment is that it's probably the most successful reinvention of a colossally huge rock band this decade. Green Day had nowhere to go but up before they rebooted things with American Idiot, so the risk wasn't there. Coldplay had everything to lose with their fourth album, but they went ahead with it anyway.
After the relatively underwhelming response to 2005's X&Y — which only sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, to give you an idea of the scope within which Coldplay operate — they made a very conscious decision to put themselves under the musical knife. Putting their faith in producer Brian Eno (who, truth be told, played synths on X&Y), they embarked on a journey that took them to churches in Argentina and Spain, stripped their sonic largesse down to simple acoustics and explored territories previously unmined. That meant using everything from tiny tack pianos — which they built themselves — to frontman Chris Martin's newfound lower register.
"One of the main things we tried to focus on with this record is changing vocal identities, because Chris has a very recognizable voice," drummer Will Champion told MTV News in June. "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 ... that [idea] really interested us."
"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," Martin added. "The longer you go on as a band, the harder it is to surprise yourself. So, there are moments on this record that are surprises, even to us. And those are our favorite moments, to be honest."
It was gutsy to take away everything that had made Coldplay, well, Coldplay. Coupled with the band's newfound fascination with the French Revolution (demonstrated by the Eugène Delacroix painting on the cover of Viva and the band's rag-tag military costumes), it seemed like an experiment destined to fail. Yet, as a credit to the band's growth as musicians, and to Eno's sure-handed skills, Viva la Vida was anything but.
It packs just as big a punch sonically as it did commercially. From the quiet, icy burbles of opener "Life in Technicolor" or "Chinese Sleep Chant" to the effervescent wallop of hit singles "Viva la Vida" and "Violet Hill," Viva is an album that captures the massive and the minimal, a bi-polar swirl of a listen that reveals everything and nothing at the same time. This is Coldplay at top volume, working on all cylinders. It's the album they were born to make. (That said, it's still no A Rush of Blood to the Head.)
And that's a sentiment shared not just by the fans, but by many a fickle rock critic. Viva found its way onto most best-of-2008 lists, and it heads into this Sunday's Grammy Awards as a frontrunner. All-in-all, Coldplay earned seven nominations, more than anyone else not named Lil Wayne. One would think they'll probably take home their fair share of Golden Gramophones, and while they'll no doubt be grateful, there's probably going to be another emotion coursing through their veins: relief.
After all, they took the risk. Now it's time to reap the rewards.
Will Lil Wayne grab all the gramophones? Is Katy Perry going to tell her girl rivals to kiss off? Can Coldplay march off with a win? MTV News is all over the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, so stay tuned for interviews, analysis and more before, during and after the big night, Sunday, February 8.