Coldplay's Winning Formula
This article is from 2008.
Back in 2005, after worrying aloud that his band had become over-exposed, Chris Martin vowed Coldplay's follow-up to their hugely successful third album 'X+Y' would be a long time coming. The band stuck true to his word, but the three year wait for fourth LP 'Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends' has only served to ramp up the fanfare with which it has been greeted by the media and music fans alike. At the time of writing the record is a nailed on certainty to top the UK Album Chart with predicted sales in the region of 250,000, despite only having three days in which to rack up sales following its release on Thursday (12.06.08).
Despite mostly positive feedback the band has spent their time out of the musical spotlight attempting to get away from the formula which propelled them to worldwide album sales of more than 30 million and a healthy amount of critical acclaim. Martin has even likened their attempted transformation into "A revolution when people break into a palace and get rid of the old institution."
Despite many positive reviews, with Britain's influential Q Magazine giving 'X+Y' a rare five star rating, it seems the band have paid more heed to their critics. Responding to the New York Times, who dubbed Coldplay "The most insufferable band of the decade", Martin admitted: "I agreed with a lot of the points. I was like, 'Yeah, I do sometimes go for the obvious, and I do sometimes fall back on old tricks'. So in a way it was liberating to see that someone else realised that also."
There was someone else in on the secret too - legendary producer Brian Eno. Having previously helped to remould the likes of David Bowie and U2, when the band contacted Eno asking for advice on where to go for inspiration, he offered his services. And the 60-year-old was uncompromising in his assessment of their multi-award winning back catalogue.
Martin recalled: "He told us, 'Your songs are too long. And you're too repetitive, and you use the same tricks too much, and big things aren't necessarily good things, and you use the same sounds too much, and your lyrics are not good enough.' He broke it down."
Eno did not simply bring his famous knack for creating unique, affecting sonic landscapes to the table. Martin admits that among other "crazy experiments", Eno persuaded the band to allow a hypnotist to help the find extra cohesion in the studio, while also convincing them to try out playing each other's instruments. He admits that "soon we had literally forgotten we had ever had a hit record".
Given that Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion have been together since meeting as students at University College London in the mid-90s the willingness to change their dynamic is admirable. The fourpiece were so impressed with electronic music maestro Jon Hopkins, who was introduced to the band by Eno, they even used his mesmeric track 'The Escapist' to introduce the mesmeric opening instrumental on 'Viva La Vida...'.
Their self-deprecation and willingness to be led by others is not the sort of thing you would get from the likes of Oasis' Gallagher brothers, but then Coldplay have never lived up to the hard-living, responsibility-free rock star template. Prior to the release of their debut album 'Parachutes' the band agreed that anyone caught taking hard drugs would immediately be kicked out, while Martin has become renowned has become for his vegetarianism, and following some of the health fads practiced by his Hollywood star wife Gwyneth Paltrow.
Martin's marriage to Paltrow - with who he has a four-year-old daughter, Apple, and son Moses, two - has meant that even while the band has enjoyed an extended hiatus, he has had to put up with every bit as much media intrusion as ever. This is something which clearly makes the 31-year-old uncomfortable, and he refuses to mention his wife or children by name in interviews. This contrasts greatly with the way the band embrace the cycle of endless media promotion which comes with a new record, but it's clear where Martin's priorities ultimately lie. He was recently reported to have responded to one interviewer's questions about his family life by storming out while muttering "I don't care if it means we sell a million less albums".
But make no mistake, selling millions of albums is still ultimately essential to Coldplay. When they last took centre stage in 2005 they could justifiably claim to be the biggest band on the planet, and it is a title they seem determined to win back.
Martin notes: "Some people like the challenge of an audience not being completely with them and other people just want to kick the goal all the time. We're definitely the latter."
For all their talk of starting from scratch, the determination to make sure they hit the back of the net means the band's sound has not drastically altered. They may refer to their first three LPs as a separate trilogy, but ultimately 'Viva La Vida' is not a Radiohead-style drastic departure from a winning formula. No, with its soaring vocals, and Buckland's uplifting and largely upbeat guitar sound, Coldplay still lean more towards the epic, stadium-filling exploits of U2. 'Viva la Vida...' is not Coldplay's Kid A. The sound has been tweaked, with less reliance on choruses and the addition of new elements such as the seemingly Bollywood-inspired excerpts on the track 'Yes', but there is still barely a song on the record that does not unmistakably scream "COLDPLAY" at its listeners within seconds.
Revealing the dichotomy between the search for a new sound and the desire for world domination, Martin said: "We've thrown away new tricks, which makes us nervous, but it's also exciting in the long run. We've had to write songs that people will want to sing along to but hopefully present them in a colourful way."
And that's pretty much exactly what their new album is - Coldplay, with a little added colour. Ultimately, there was too much riding on the success of the record for any sales-hampering, self-indulgent artistic pretensions. Their troubled record label EMI - having lost the likes of Radiohead and Sir Paul McCartney in recent times, with Robbie Williams at one point threatening to go on strike - are widely reported to be relying on Colplay's huge sales to stay afloat. They will not be let down.
The band have admitted they would like to go back and remove several songs from 'X+Y', but there is unlikely to be any retrospective lamenting about 'Viva La Vida' in years to come. At 45 minutes it is leaner, and like their second album 'A Rush of Blood to the Head', carries very little dead wood.
Despite 'Viva La Vida...' boasting artwork depicting Eugene Delacroix's painting of the Frech Revolution, entitled 'Liberty Leading the Rebellion', Martin recenty declared "We do not see rock and roll as a rebellion". That lack of any will to rebel means the band's fourth album ultimately offers continuity, and that means continued dominance of the market place. Martin and Champion have claimed the band are such close friends they can hardly countenance the idea of splitting up. With that in mind, and taking into account their remarkable consistency, expect Coldplay to straddle the globe for a long time. This sensible, driven fourpiece are set to have their albums adorning coffee tables and students' CD racks all over the world for many years to come.
By Robbie McIntyre
© BANG Media International