Close listeners will notice something strange about "Violet Hill," the new Coldplay single: It isn't a Coldplay single. That term, after all, implies certain things about the shape a song will take, what it will sound like, what it will achieve. Here, the criteria go unfulfilled. Where's the part where Chris Martin mends a million failing marriages, effects a three-minute moratorium on global suffering, and still finds time to rhyme love with above? Where's the part where a single chiming guitar ennobles the spirit and rights the housing market? At the very least: Where's the damn chorus?
If Martin & Co. inspire expectations of grandeur, it's because they're one of the world's biggest bands, and they relish the role. They've sold 30 million records, they can send EMI stock soaring and plummeting with the flick of a release date, and in a 2005 interview, Martin announced the band's intention to succeed U2 as rock's reigning stadium healers, saving souls via statesmanship (they are prominent advocates for fair trade) and singalongs. Recently, a poll revealed that more Britons prefer to fall asleep to Coldplay than any other performer—James Blunt was No. 2. It was a backhanded distinction that nonetheless crowned Coldplay pop's foremost soother.
"Violet Hill" is a surprising change of direction. It includes disgusted political doomsaying ("When the future's architected by a carnival of idiots on show, you better lie low," Martin snarls), a hammering beat, and a scabrous guitar riff that wouldn't sound out of place in a heavy-metal song. The track signals either an artistic crisis, restlessness, commercial self-sabotage, or a combination of all three—and there's more where that came from. Viva La Vida, Coldplay's fourth album, out Tuesday, is full of grim imagery, songs that meander, others that cut off unexpectedly, wordless interludes, guitar squalls, and one song that the band composed after listening to records by Donna Summer and Limp Bizkit—under hypnosis. "Just to get outside of ourselves," Martin explained to me during an interview last month. In other words: Eight years into their career, Coldplay has made its we-don't-give-a-fuck album.
It's a move many bands have made, including Coldplay's two biggest heroes: Radiohead followed the dramatic guitar vistas of OK Computer with the claustrophobic digitalia of Kid A; U2 followed the sultry Achtung Baby with that weird record where they actually let the Edge sing a song. But Coldplay's curveball is especially unlikely. Bad reviews—most prominently, Jon Pareles' 2005 New York Times takedown, which attacked the triteness of their lyrics and their wound-licking wimpiness—shoved them into abysses of self-doubt. They've talked openly and often about wanting to connect with as many people as possible, meaning their internal GPS has, until now, forbidden any left turns.
Martin put his cornball-populist side front and center on 2000's Parachutes ("We live in a beautiful world," he coos on the opening track). The album was likeable but wispy. It was only on "Yellow," a surprise hit, that Coldplay found its winning formula, harnessing Martin's gorgeous, stuffy-nosed tenor to Jonny Buckland's rocketing electric guitar.
"Yellow" lit the way to Coldplay's one truly great album, 2002's A Rush of Blood to the Head, which captured the band's talent for making songs soar beneath the weight of its own sentimentality. The loveliest of these is a slowly snowballing let's-stay-together jam called "The Scientist": The song begins with a somber, three-chord piano melody, gathering instruments and emotional heft as it rolls wistfully forward. Martin, singing from the perspective of a romantic overthinker in search of simplicity, sticks to an AAAA rhyme scheme and a cadence that suggests a doleful Woody Woodpecker (da-da-da-DA-da, da-da-da-DA-da). Through moments like this, A Rush of Blood to the Head managed to feel grand and intimate at once.
This duality fit, because if Chris Martin is one part Bono, he's three parts emo. He is a needy and insecure man—his songbook a catalog of apologies, questions, desperate promises, and prayers—and it is Coldplay's considerable gift that it can make those qualities not only winning but galvanizing. Of course, it doesn't always work, and on 2005's X&Y, the album that prompted Jon Pareles to call Coldplay "the most insufferable band of the decade," it hardly worked at all. Pareles's designation was overheated—any reaction to Coldplay that's more vitriolic than a groan or a cringe can't help but seem unequal to the offense. But X&Y, the sound of a young band overreaching for significance, is pretty overheated, too. Lousy with whooshing synths and crisscrossed with grand riffs that spiral nowhere, the album offers a lot of busy motion and little to focus on, much less curl up with. Martin's lyrics are no better: The words sun, planet, and space appear repeatedly, cheap shortcuts to the infinite.
If X&Y was a big, shiny hot-air machine, you can all but hear Coldplay dismantling it on Viva La Vida. There's a lively sense of disarray to the album, a splatter of different ideas and sounds that the band doesn't try to tidy up. There are Middle Eastern string breakdowns, Afropop guitar peals, a jaunty house-music pulse, and, on "Lost!," a massive, rattling hip-hop beat that runs beneath a church organ. Timbaland once gushed that he'd love nothing more than to work with Coldplay, and this track helps us imagine what it might have sounded like if he had.
But who needs Timbaland when you can afford Brian Eno, another paradigm-flipping producer whose services are in far shorter supply these days? Eno is responsible for introducing David Bowie to noise, Talking Heads to polyrhythms, and U2 to cosmic sweep. (Given this third achievement, you could say that X&Y was an unintentional parody of an Eno album, place-holding until the real thing came along.) He likes to evict bands from their comfort zones. The hypnotized jam session was his idea, as was frequent instrument swapping, all to shake the band free of ingrained habits.
There are songs here that only Eno could have produced. "Reign of Love" recalls U2 but reminds us that Bono and friends are great not just at cloud-parting bombast but quiet, sensuous ballads, too: A central piano arpeggio billows gently while little specks of guitar noise hum and tremble. Unlike your typical U2 ballad, though—and as with "Violet Hill"—there is no chorus or 11th-hour climax. The song just goes on for a few minutes before ending as quietly as it began.
Throughout the album, Coldplay finds fresh ways to balance the majestic with the miniature—precisely what was missing from X&Y. Here, some credit is due to Eno's co-producer, Markus Dravs, fresh from his work on Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. That Montreal act, beloved by Martin and Bono alike, are masters of the ramshackle epic, and there's a similar sensation of give, clatter, and scrappiness to even the biggest songs here, from the ecstatic clapping during the final section of "42" to the unkempt piano jangle of "Lovers in Japan." Viva La Vida is an album full of happy jolts and surprises from a band no one has ever accused of being surprising. Some of the ideas don't quite congeal, but it's exciting to see a band this big put its scrap paper on display.
The lyrics, too, have changed. Whether imagining an apocalyptic snowfall in "Violet Hill" or the crumbling of a once-proud empire in the title track, Martin has mortality and grim twists of fate on the brain this time out. It's a darker Martin than we've seen—perhaps those haters who deride him as a whimpering kitten finally got to him. He still has a weakness for platitudes ("You might be a big fish in a little pond, doesn't mean you've won," he informs us helpfully on "Lost!") but offsets them with shadowy little vignettes throughout. It's exactly the move the band needed to make if they wanted to become—and not just sell like—heavyweights.
To be fair, radical change is relative, and with Coldplay, a little upheaval goes a long way. There are still frequent glimpses of Martin's old softie self, and his inner optimist ultimately wins out. At the end of "Yes," during a surprisingly tender guitar meltdown, two words are faintly intelligible: "Sleep satisfied." Bad news, James Blunt: Even at their most experimental, bedtime still belongs to Coldplay.