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‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends’: Behind Coldplay’s Sonic Revolution
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In Depth

‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends’: Behind Coldplay’s Sonic Revolution

With ‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends’, Coldplay ventured into art-rock and crafted a protest album in response to the Iraq War.

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Keen to embark upon their next phase of musical and lyrical experimentation, Coldplay used their fourth studio album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, to push boundaries and explore new creative territory. Co-produced by Brian Eno, the album marked a significant departure from the sound that had made Coldplay the biggest band in the world, and allowed the group to showcase their more eclectic and experimental side. With chart-conquering hits such as Viva La Vida and Violet Hill, the record was warmly embraced as an instant classic upon its release in the summer of 2008, and it remains a defining moment in Coldplay’s career.

Listen to ‘Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends’ here.

Beyond its commercial success, however, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends also reflected the political and social climate of its time, directly addressing themes of war, revolution and personal struggles. While still maintaining anthemic hooks and melodic appeal that characterised the best Coldplay songs, the album saw songwriter Chris Martin incorporate classical-inspired arrangements and the eclecticism of world music into his songs, drawing upon lyrical themes inspired by real-life historical events.

Here’s the story behind this iconic album, including how producer Brian Eno played a pivotal role in Coldplay’s reinvention, and how Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends evoked the spirit of revolution and held up a mirror to the world in the late 2000s.

The backstory: “We wanted to make a record which people couldn’t pigeonhole too easily”

It says a lot about Coldplay’s work ethic that, despite already being one of the biggest bands on the planet, they knew they had to evolve with Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. Rather than repeat the same winning formula of their previous album, X&Y, frontman Chris Martin, bassist Guy Berryman, guitarist Jonny Buckland and drummer Will Champion sought to inject more dynamism and colour into their sound in order to fully realise their potential. “We reached a stage where we thought we can’t get much bigger,” Chris Martin said, “so we have to try and get better.”

After building their own recording studio, The Bakery, in Hampstead, North London, in late 2006, the group invited string arranger and composer Davide Rossi and producer Markus Dravs in to help them lay down some demos while they plotted their next sonic reinvention. “We wanted to make a record which people couldn’t pigeonhole too easily,” Guy Berryman later said. “We don’t want to be thought of as one-trick ponies.”

Taking cues from U2’s studio-based experimentation of the late 80s, Coldplay were keen to lean more heavily into art-rock for their next effort. To aid them in this endeavour, they reached out for advice from ambient pioneer and producer extraordinaire Brian Eno, who had helped David Bowie reinvent himself in the mid-70s and, along with Daniel Lanois, guided U2 to greatness on their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree.

Initially, the group simply asked Eno for producer recommendations, but they were pleasantly surprised when Eno put himself forward, telling them, “Well, I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but I might be the man.”

“We were looking for the new Brian Eno,” drummer Will Champion said dryly, “and we found the old Brian Eno.”

The recording: “We came up with a lot of interesting noises”

After surprising Coldplay by agreeing to produce their new album, Eno visited The Bakery from November 2006 to April 2008, and his sage-like presence quickly influenced the group’s new material. Forcing the band not to rest on their laurels, Eno encouraged Chris Martin to broaden his lyrical approach and urged each musician to pursue any idea they had, no matter how outlandish.

From putting a bass drum over Martin’s head to having the group record certain lyrics backwards and in French, Eno made Coldplay feel brave enough to try anything. “He’s like a sort of wizard-type figure, like a Gandalf or a Dumbledore, who comes in and sprinkles magic all over the place,” Martin said.

To get Coldplay to think outside the box, Eno sent them to a hypnotist who put each member into a trance-like state in a bid to snap them out of their usual habits. “It did work, actually,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly. “We came up with a lot of interesting noises, which we used. I think the whole process of getting our own place and working with Brian has been really liberating for us.”

As the new songs took shape, it was clear Martin’s lyrics were becoming more ambitious, drawing inspiration from historical events and religious allegories. Released as the lead single from Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, Violet Hill was a haunting protest song that critiqued the foolishness of war-mongering rulers (“When the future’s architectured/By a carnival of idiots on show”) and the jingoism of religious fundamentalists (“Priests clutched onto bibles/Hollowed out to fit their rifles”). Though the song was not explicitly about the Iraq War, it resonated with many who were disillusioned by the ongoing conflict.

Released in May 2008, Violet Hill would go on to peak at No.8 in the UK, engulfing the listener in a blizzard of medieval metaphors in which soldiers marched to war under the looming shadow of Gothic cathedrals. Powerful and thought-provoking, the song also showcased Martin’s rich storytelling abilities and demonstrated Coldplay’s willingness to tackle more complex and adventurous ideas in their songs.

The release: “There’s a freedom in the new songs – it’s not verse-chorus, verse-chorus anymore.”

One of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the year, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends was finally released on 12 June 2008 and immediately topped the charts in both the UK and the US. Emblazoned by the quote from Mexican artist Frida Kahlo that inspired part of its title (“Viva la vida”, or “Long live life”), the album cover evoked the spirit of revolution by using Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading The People. “The spirit of rock’n’roll is freedom,” Chris Martin said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “It’s about following what you believe in and not caring what anyone else says.”

Blessed with the most intelligent set of lyrics Martin had ever penned, the album’s second single, Viva La Vida, told the story of a king’s downfall – most likely the 18th-century French monarch Louis XVI – with a stadium-ready chant acting as a melodic war cry. “It’s a story about a king who’s lost his kingdom,” bassist Guy Berryman told Q magazine. “There’s this slightly anti-authoritarian viewpoint that’s crept into some of the lyrics.” Set to the swell of percussive strings, Viva La Vida married baroque-pop breeziness with the gusto of Arcade Fire’s anthemic indie-rock, and it became Coldplay’s first No.1 single in both the US and the UK.

Many of the vocals on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends were recorded inside a 14th-century monastery in Barcelona. Full of choir-like harmonies, the songs bore witness to how Brian Eno’s eclecticism had nudged Coldplay to weave a spiritually rich tapestry of sound. As if soundtracking the title sequence from a period drama, the album’s instrumental opener, Life In Technicolor, immediately sweeps listeners up in a feverish swirl of synths and timpani, while Cemeteries Of London sees Martin glimpsing “toiling ghosts” in the Thames and hearing the chatter of witches lurking underneath the arches.

Taken together, the songs on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends offered a poetic rumination on the political climate of the late 2000s. With the US-led “War On Terror” in full swing and the George W Bush administration entering its final throes, Viva La Vida’s images of royalty besieged by forces of dissent undoubtedly bled into Lost, in which Chris Martin lambasted the futility of war over the clatter of marching drums (“You might be a big fish/In a little pond/Doesn’t mean you’ve won/’Cause along may come a bigger one”).

Elsewhere, Martin seeks solace from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams’ answer to life, the universe and everything on 42, lyrically summoning the spirits of the dead to admonish the gung-ho generals of the present day (“Those who are dead are not dead/They’re just livin’ in my head”). After the wanton piano-bashing of Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love, it was clear Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends was a boldly eclectic mix of rock, pop and orchestral flourishes, with the discordant howls of John Cale-esque viola on Yes giving way to guitarist Jonny Buckland’s shoegazey catharsis. Without a doubt, the album represented a creative rebirth for Coldplay.

The legacy: “The most purely joyous bit for me is that communal thing”

Helping Coldplay shed their image as radio-friendly balladeers, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends went on to sell 6.8 million copies worldwide, and it remains the pièce de résistance among the group’s discography.

With the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq sparking a wave of anti-war demonstrations, Coldplay embarked upon a world tour wearing military jackets inspired by those worn by the French revolutionaries. By bringing Romantic-era artistry to life with a bohemian sense of theatricality, Chris Martin aimed to unite audiences under the banner of peace, love and unity. “The most purely joyous bit for me is that communal thing,” he said. “Nothing can beat a chant live. I love singalongs more than anything.”

Carried by Brian Eno’s swirling sonic ambience and Davide Rossi’s billowing strings, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends was a symphonic masterstroke unlike anything Coldplay had recorded before. Jonny Buckland even dabbled in West African guitar riffs on Strawberry Swing, released as the fourth single from the album, in September 2009.

Giving heft to the album’s themes of revolution, political unrest and spiritual yearning, Chris Martin’s lyrics voiced a clarion call for hope during the dying days of the George W Bush administration. Whether fans realised they were singing about Louis XVI’s journey to the guillotine or not, the album’s call for change soon came to pass. Within six months of the release of Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, presidential candidate Barack Obama – a vocal critic of the Iraq War – had won the 2008 US election, ushering in a new dawn for the United States Of America, and making history as the first Black US President. As Coldplay continued their extensive world tour into 2009, Chris Martin modified his stage outfit to include an armband with Obama’s name emblazoned on it.

Today, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is widely regarded as Coldplay’s most groundbreaking album – one that not only showcased the band’s musical growth but also reflected the political and social climate of the time. With its bold experimentation and fearless creativity, it remains a testament to the power of protest in popular culture, and a reminder of why Coldplay continues to be one of the best and most influential bands of the 2000s.

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