Wednesday, June 11, 2008

2008: A fine year to go Experimental

Review: Viva la Vida

A few weeks ago, my mom asked me what I thought of Coldplay. Now, my mom is definitely a product of the 60s and 70s, but certainly a product who lived through those decades and has musical taste. At the very least, she completed the greatest musical task set forth to baby boomer parents: impress upon the youth the immense significance of the Beatles. It was through my mom that I first came across the thesis that everything good about any music after 1970 is in some way attributable to the Beatles. It sounds radical, but I'm more or less inclined to agree with it.

So when she asked me what I thought of Coldplay, I was naturally a bit surprised. "How come?" I asked. She had seen the iTunes commercial with the new Coldplay song, and she said she never knew she actually liked that band. "Coldplay's all right," I told her. "Some of their stuff is boring. But there's a lot of music that, given a choice between Coldplay and it, I'm picking Coldplay." Now, at this point, I had not seen the iTunes commercial in question—credit to my mom for picking up something technological and musical before I got there.

Several days later, I saw the iTunes commercial for myself. This is the one featuring the title track from Viva la Vida. Yes, I thought, mom's right, this is good. Perhaps I should check out the new Coldplay CD for myself. I did. If I thought the newest Death Cab CD was going in some strange directions… let's just say I wasn't prepared for Viva la Vida. This is some sort of odd "Coldplay does experimental rock". We're talking pentatonics, mixed meter, innovative orchestration. And the baffling thing is, on almost every level, it works.

I'll go farther than that, in fact. This album has done something remarkable. Something that Parachutes seemed dead-set against, that A Rush of Blood to the Head wanted nothing to do with either, and that X&Y flirted with and almost broke through to in a few spots. This album has made Coldplay interesting. And it's easily my favorite Coldplay CD.

Now, as a disclaimer, this is coming from the guy who liked X&Y, quite a bit. I wouldn't go so far as to call X&Y one of my favorite CDs, but it's definitely something that I listen to on purpose. I've been told from people who know far more than I do about songwriting and popular music appreciation that I'm really not supposed to like it that much. The lyrics are flat, they complain. There's almost no trace of creativity. Yeah, maybe that's true, I admit. But it's good to listen to.

All of this has made me realize something about my personal criteria for good music. Forced to make a choice, I'm going to pick the thing that sounds nice over the thing that has meaningful words behind it almost every time. If you can do both, a la the Shins, then you're (finally) golden (boy). Other bands can do it too, like the Decemberists, Eisley, Rilo Kiley, and Sufjan Stevens; these are artists I would legitimately call my "favorites". There are exceptions, like Neutral Milk Hotel, which has a certain indelible intellectual charm about it despite the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel wouldn't know "in tune" if it hit them in the proverbial jug. But this is precisely why I don't listen to Bright Eyes, Radiohead, and Modest Mouse—regardless of how good the words are, it just doesn't sound very pleasant.

Most of X&Y did. Again, not that Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head didn't. They were just bland in their not-unpleasantness. Maybe they were a plate piled high with white rice. There's nothing wrong with rice, and given the choice between rice and starvation (or the Brussels sprouts of most modern popular music), I'm taking the rice. Maybe X&Y was rice subtly flavored with saffron. It doesn't change the fact that it's still rice, and plenty of people are going to criticize it for trying to pretty itself up and mask its shortcomings.

That makes Viva la Vida gumbo. There's still rice there, and it’s not that you even have to look very hard to find it. But this time there's much more going on: more flavors, more colors, and more to keep you coming back even after you've had a plate. Now, suppose you like your rice plain. Saffron would be a little off-putting, and chicken, sausage, and okra are going to turn you away completely. And suppose you were sort of expecting something drastically different, but you would have preferred a helping of cashew chicken mixed into that rice. Then Viva la Vida might be very disappointing indeed.

The fact remains that, for better or worse, it's different. I think it's good different. And I can see this experimental album being one of those that creates a schism in Coldplay's listener base: some fraction swearing off the band as sellouts and another fraction embracing the experiment. I'm very much in the latter.

Currently listening: "Harry Truman", Chicago

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