It has been 27 years since Brian Eno and David Byrne released their first collaboration project, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The album, a hodgepodge of recorded worldly beats and dance grooves, seemed at first like a more polarizing extension of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, but was really the lovechild of two musical geniuses. Flash-forward to 2008 and Eno and Byrne have unleashed their follow up collaboration record, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today.
An anxious nation can officially be put to rest. This past week Coldplay, planet Earth’s favorite big emotional sound troupe, officially announced some details regarding its “highly” anticipated fourth studio album. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is a mouthful of a record title especially when compared to 2005s oh so subtle, X&Y. The album is set for a mid June release with tracks ranging from the spooky sounding “Cemeteries of London,” the mysterious “Lost!” and the possibly philosophy riddled “Glass of Water.” Half full or half empty Mr. Martin?
I admittedly found Coldplay’s first two endeavors–2000s “Parachutes” and 2004s titanic release “A Rush of Blood to the Head”–to be rather enjoyable. Sure tracks like “Yellow” and “Clocks” were almost too catchy and quickly became poison to the ears after radio stations continued to spin the record raw but both albums as a whole were pretty solid. If you were to put all the mega stardom and celebrity buzz over babies named after pieces or produce aside Coldplay have always done pure unadulterated pop music well.
I suppose what eventually turned me off was the band’s popularity explosion immediately following Rush. When the eagerly awaited X&Y was finally unveiled in 2005 not only did the mediocre third act sound like merely more of the same or an entire album set out to emulate a blockbuster like “Clocks” but its unnecessary media buzz was more of a buzz kill.
So why even write about Coldplay? Why devote an entire column to some recent tidbits about the band’s upcoming fourth album? The answer is simple: Eno.
Comparisons have always been made between Coldplay and groups like Radiohead or U2. While a more appropriate Coldplay link would be to Brit pop acts like The Stone Roses or Oasis, Chris Martin’s bleak but fairly uninspired lyrics always seem to bunch the band into the former group. On Viva la Vida… (seriously what’s with the title? What about Frida Kahlo interests Mr. Martin?) ambient sound pioneer Brian Eno stepped in as producer a move that not only raises the album’s intrigue from blah to BLAH? but also brings the band closer to U2s career path.
Eno was at one point (and, quite frankly, still is) the producer to work with. During the 1970s and 80s he overlooked some of the greatest albums ever made by some music’s finest acts. Bowie’s avant-garde Berlin Trilogy, a handful of Talking Heads’ masterpieces, Devo’s premiere record, and of course U2s unadulterated run of album greats starting with 1984s The Unforgettable Fire and ending with 1993s overlooked Zooropa, all received that Eno touch.
One would hope that Coldplay’s decision to take on Eno as a producer shows that the band is ready for a change. Eno has always been a master of taking an artist or band and helping them find a new direction. Case in point, U2s Achtung Baby(1991). Undoubtedly Bono and company’s most sophisticated and musically interesting record to date, the album helped the band enter their second decade with a new slate to work on. He even helped the band accomplish this same feat entering the new millennium with the fresh and highly popular, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
People often say that Eno is the go-to man for acquiring that worldly sound. African drums, bizarre instrumentation, and layered rhythms seem to be his forte. While this is partially true (he did help David Byrne channel his inner Afro-pop demons during Talking Heads magnificent album progression in the early 1980s) Eno is more attuned to helping musicians take that next big step from mass appreciation to critical appreciation. In the case of U2 he helped the band find both.
In many ways Viva la Vida will be a test to see if Coldplay can propel itself from merely soft pop rock stardom to a band willing to take risks no matter what the costs are. They could make and remake the some album rooted in “Clocks”esque anthems for another ten years and they would no doubt still sell millions of records and continue to fill arenas. The ultimate question though is how will they ultimately be viewed by future music fans and critics writing their columns for the best acts of the early millennium? Where will Coldplay fit in rock and roll history?
According to a press release of the new album on Coldplay’s website:
“The sights, sounds and flavours of Latin America and Spain have definitely been infused into this album…No maracas or castanets, but a vibrancy and colourfulness that owes much to the atmospheres of Buenos Aires and Barcelona. The effect is subtle but important.”
There you have it. Subtle but important. The question now is can singer/songwriter Chris Martin shed his unnecessary knack for depressing lyrics (you’re married to Gwyneth Paltrow, you probably have more money than the Queen and you get to tour the world playing recycled keyboard licks, why such a glum disposition sir?)? Will this spicy new direction work for the band? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.
I was talking to a very good friend of mine about the band. Unlike myself he has always stood by all things Coldplay. WhenX&Y’s single “Fix You” was leaked on the internet its play count on his iTunes library stretched into the 1000s (to be fair he used to leave the emotional ballad on a repeat loop at night. Nothing like a little cushy Brit pop to lull you to sleep). His argument has always been Coldplay’s music sounds good and it’s consistent. Shouldn’t interesting music steer clear of consistency? Aren’t the ones who take risks the true greats?
For this column I went and revisited X&Y on his recommendation just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Sure enough I didn’t miss anything. That said, I’m still interested to see what this new album has in store for the band if anything because they are a hard super-force to ignore. Plus as a fan of Eno there is a spark of hope that maybe Coldplay was just testing the waters with their first couple albums. Who knows, with Viva la Vida maybe the band followed the oh-so-wise Monty Python motto, ‘and now for something completely different.’