Easily the most maddening megastars of their (and, quite possibly, any other) generation, Chris Martin and the guys who comprise Coldplay have rebounded from a three year hiatus with Viva La Vida -or- Death and All His Friends — and incidentally, would someone kindly let ol’ Chris know that split title idea is only cute when I do it? — yet another commercial smash which pretty much cements this band, for better or worse, as this decade’s “it” artists.


The astounding news first: Vida is actually a shockingly strong album. Produced in large part by the legendary Brian Eno (whose career work with U2 is beyond critique, and whose so-called “soundscapes” helped lift Paul Simon to a new creative zenith two years ago), who stacks layers of tight, lithe aural muscle atop Martin’s often-meandering orchestral flourishes, this is a record of sorrow and regret (hands down, Coldplay’s fave topics), yet one that hints at the hopeful joy of a new dawn. The album blasts off the blocks with its best track (by a backwards British mile, too), a thrilling, explosive instrumental piece called “Life in Technicolor,” then begins to drag a bit in the middle under the typical weight of Martin’s ponderous pretension — tell you what, when that boy’s on his game (see 2000’s “Yellow,” Coldplay’s breakthrough smash and, now and forever, their finest artistic hour; or 2002’s “The Scientist,” by light years a more riveting track than the overblown “Clocks,” no matter what Justin Timberlake may tell you; or 2005’s “Fix You,” the lone bright spot on the limp, leaden X & Y), he has no equal; and when he isn’t (see, oh, the rest of X & Y), no one is more adept at making your hair hurt — but then skyrockets in its second half, thanks to an eminently impressive string of songs led by “Strawberry Swing” (whose unmistakable country leanings are infinitely interesting when pressed against Martin’s sullen timbre), the set’s main title track and lead single (which I’m man enough to admit is totally growing on me, after I initially dismissed it with an indifferent shrug), and the album’s gorgeous closing track — also largely instrumental, save for an exuberant verse in the middle — “Death and All His Friends.”


The less-than-shattering revelation here is that, despite Martin’s stunningly strident vow last year during the primary recording sessions that these songs were gonna blow minds planet-wide, Vida isn’t about to change anyone’s life. Indeed, this record is quite good (despite my best efforts to detest it), and you might even find it’s the unquestioned best of their four albums (surely, it’ll win that title by default, seeing as how X & Y wasn’t even compelling enough to be termed “a trainwreck,” but I will say in Vida‘s defense: this is the only entry in Coldplay’s discography that definitively and palpably rewards repeat exposure; you literally hear something novel and interesting each time you listen anew), but it remains just a good album. At his core, despite his pontifical proclamations to the contrary, Martin is still way too tepidly timid a composer — one who, ten times outta ten, would rather use swirling, swollen strings (however disarmingly pretty) to distract from his (too-)often shallow, extraneous prose — to be a truly great frontman along the lines of his apparent heroes Bono and Stipe, a thesis that Vida, in spite of its nakedly obvious quality, defends more than adequately: whereas U2 and R.E.M. have each grown and evolved in fully mappable paths with each successive project, Martin and Coldplay are still essentially playing the same note they struck eight years ago with Parachutes, their arresting debut disc. And while the band’s budget might be significantly inflated, neither its scope nor, evidently, its ambitions have expanded in kind; what, eight years ago, seemed refreshing and startlingly unique is now beginning to feel like a stale retread writ impossibly large.


And since they are pivotal ambassadors for an industry that continues withering on the vine — like it or not, Colplay is the world’s hottest-selling contemporary rock band, a fact Martin finds great glee in trumpeting to whomever’ll listen — it seems fair to ask (if not outright expect) these men to believe they owe it to their fans, and to themselves, to dig deeper in search of the inviolable greatness they always seem perfectly satisfied to stop just short of.


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