Christianity Today’s Russ Breimeier has written an interesting article on Coldplay’s latest album. I thought it was worth a look at:
Viva la Vida (Capitol Records)
by Russ Breimeier
“I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword, my shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world.”
– from “Viva La Vida”
Once again, Coldplay proves a pillar in Brit pop/rock with a genre-defining sound swimming in texture and ambience. Once again, they’ve yielded a hit album, selling more than 720,000 copies of Viva La Vida in its first week of release. Once again, it’s an album rife with spiritual themes, packed with more explicit biblical imagery than 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and 2005’s X&Y combined. And once again, many are expressing some frustration over Coldplay’s lyricism. The band is consistent, if nothing else.
Considering that many classic bands have reveled in the cryptic (Radiohead), the abstract (U2), and the nonsensical (The Beatles), it’s odd that some critics would be so quick to dismiss Coldplay’s songwriting as meaningless. Most all the band members in previous interviews have openly shared a belief in God and some understanding of the Christian religion, so with all the consistent spiritual references on this album, is it really all pointless babble to hang their stylish sound on? Coldplay has also indicated that the song sequencing is important to their work, making Viva La Vida worth exploring track by track.
After establishing a hopeful U2-ish mood with the short instrumental opener “Life in Technicolor,” Coldplay immediately shifts gears with the comparatively somber “Cemeteries of London,” which plays like an old English folk song gone alternative-pop. Chris Martin’s words suggest a kind of ghost story that leaves us to wonder who “they” are: “At night they would go walking ’till the breaking of the day … Through the dark streets they go searching to see God in their own way.” The most important lyric comes later, as Martin depicts religion without a relationship, belief compromised by a lack of faith:
God is in the houses and God is in my head
And all the cemeteries in London
I see God come in my garden, but I don’t know what he said
For my heart it wasn’t open
Why this spiritual dryness? That answer may become clearer later at “Violet Hill,” but the underlying theme of “Lost!” is that those who are astray or damaged are not unreachable. There’s a strangely pessimistic hope that permeates the song, with ambience established by organ and rhythm.
From there, “42” opens with a melancholic piano ballad similar to John Lennon’s “Imagine” while pondering the afterlife: “Time is short and I’m sure there must be something more.” The song soon makes a jarring segue into alt-rock reminiscent of Radiohead while noting, “You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close.” What’s the significance of the number? Well, besides the product of 7 times 6, 42 was also the comical answer to life, the universe, and everything in the satirical sci-fi novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It seems more than coincidental that Coldplay would use a number associated with such an existential question in a song so focused on the nature of the afterlife.
The album returns to more hope-filled music and lyrics in “Lovers in Japan,” a lively pop song that recalls St. Paul’s encouragement (in 1 Corinthians 9) to persevere in spite of hardship: “Lovers, keep on the road you’re on/Runners, until the race is run.” Yes, that means continuing onward even when faced with an ethical dilemma like war: “Soldiers, you’ve got to solider on/Sometimes even right is wrong.” Because through all things, we look head with hope: “But I have no doubt/One day we are gonna get out … One day the sun will come out.” The song bleeds into a tranquil coda called “Reign of Love,” returning to the pessimistic hope heard in “Lost!” earlier:
Reign of love, by the church we’re waiting
Reign of love, my knees go praying
How I wish I’d spoken up
Or we’d be carried in the reign of love.
That leads to “Yes,” the darkest track of the album, with Martin embracing a newfound bass range counter to his familiar tenor and falsetto. Intertwined with exotic strings, he sings of the temptations of the world that lead us astray:
When it started we were alright
But night makes a fool of us in the daylight
Then we were dying of frustration
Saying “Lord, lead me not into temptation”
But it’s not easy when she turns you on
Sin, stay gone …
God only God knows I’m trying my best
But I’m just so tired of this loneliness.
Again the song segues into another coda, this time the mostly instrumental “Chinese Sleep Chant”—am I the only one who thinks there are faint echoes of a prayer resembling “save us” and “soon” in Martin’s heavily reverberated voice?
Coldplay’s beautifully textured pop single “Viva La Vida” takes its name from Frida Kahlo’s final painting (of melons) before her death. But the lyrics never reference the title (or melons), inspired, like the album cover, by the French Revolution, depicting a mighty ruler lamenting the end of his reign. But there’s more to revolutionaries and paintings with a Spanish title that translates to “Long Live Life!” or “Live the Life.” Could it be that the song is more personal than historical, recognition that we are not masters of our lives? Or perhaps the song is more inspired by Jesus’ words about gaining the world at the cost of our soul in Matthew 16?
The title track leads to “Violet Hill,” a dark, Pink Floyd-styled rocker about a soldier voicing his misgivings over a misguided holy crusade. Indeed, it certainly plays into misgivings over strife in the Middle East, with both sides using religion to justify their actions. This could well be the source of the spiritual dryness cited earlier, and for a more detailed explanation of the song, check out the excellent lyrical dissection posted here.
The dream-like “Strawberry Swing” is the simplest song on the album, and that’s likely intentional. In contrast to war and death, these lyrics celebrate life as a precious gift, empty without love. It’s such a sweetly picturesque song that you might even think of it as heavenly.
Which brings us to the closer “Death and All His Friends,” which also happens to be the alternate title to Viva La Vida, and thus probably shouldn’t be interpreted in a negative way. It might better be understood as a song about the inevitability of death, or more importantly, one about embracing death without fear or contributing to it in this life: “No I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end/I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge.” The album then concludes with a hidden track, stating, “We lie awake, and we dream of making our escape.” Escaping to what exactly, the next life?
What does it all mean? With so many questions posed, a single interpretation of this album is virtually impossible—but then that’s often true of good art. As with other classic bands in rock history, the lyrics are cryptic, abstract, nonsensical, and yes, even meaningless at times. It could well be that Coldplay simply feels the sequencing of the album’s songs is important to the musical flow, not some grand lyrical message.
Yet taken collectively, there is no ignoring the fact that spiritual themes are prevalent throughout the album. Viva La Vida seems to be about coping with death in a world corrupted by sin, temptation, and war. Though it never goes deeper than mentioning God or referencing a specific theology, the lyrics often yearn with hope and love for a better world—utopia or heaven, it’s up to your interpretation.
Perhaps that’s why people are really frustrated with an album so consistent with Coldplay’s previous work in many ways. Viva La Vida is often provocative, spiritual, and seemingly on the verge of identifying a greater Truth, asking and inspiring many questions without providing the answers.