Viva La Vida | a theological review of Coldplay’s new album

Note (7/22): This is the second draft of an article I posted last week. Many thanks to my editor Heather for all her help.

Growing up in the church I developed a strong faith, but I also grew up watching MTV and caring a lot about popular culture. Today, as a mid/late 20-something, I still have a fascination with popular culture (music, movies, sports, even celebrity gossip), but I also feel a desire to understand and share my faith. Bringing these interests together, I graduated from seminary this past spring with a master’s degree in Theology & Pop-Culture (a degree that didn’t exist until I created it). As a “pop-culture theologian,” I see the world through a unique perspective – seeking to interpret what is happening in today’s culture and translate it in a way that reflects God’s activity in our world. It is through this perspective that I would like to guide you on a search for the sacred in the (perceived) secular, by reviewing Coldplay’s new album theologically.

I became a Coldplay fan while on a trip to New Zealand in January, 2001. It was my junior year of college, and one of the guys I was traveling with wanted to listen to an album called Parachutes (their first album) on our group’s bus. We listened to it over and over while exploring NZ’s south island and it provided an incredible soundtrack to an amazing trip. I loved the music because it was both depressing and hopeful at the same time, much like the tension of real life. I downloaded Parachutes when I got back to campus, and seven years later I’m still listening to Coldplay’s music and they’ve become one of my favorite bands.

Along with millions of other Coldplay fans around the world, I spent the past year awaiting the release of what coldplay.com promised would be “the album people will remember them by.” That is certainly a bold statement to make about an album that was already highly-anticipated; especially since their last album, 2005’s X&Y, received some rather harsh reviews, but since Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends came out last month I have been listening to it on repeat. Although it took me a few weeks to move beyond simply listening to the melodies and feelings of the album, I have now begun hearing the songs on a much deeper level (i.e., the lyrics and meaning of the music) and to my excited surprise, I have come to realize that much the album focuses on issues of faith and theology.

An unexamined album is not worth listening to.

Nearly every song on Viva La Vida contains theological undertones and themes. Taking a quick tour through the track list (although not necessarily in the order they appear on the album), ‘Yes’ seems to be about personal faith and possibly even decision theology; ‘Cemeteries of London,’ ‘Death and All His Friends’ and ‘Violet Hill’ address death and the inevitability of dying; ‘Lost!’ explores the search for meaning and identity; and ‘Viva La Vida,’ ‘42′ and ‘The Escapist’ (the “hidden” song at the end of the album) focus on heaven/hell and the thought or hope of life after death.

While songs like ‘Reign of Love’ lead listeners to more theological questions than answers, I happen to believe that it is in the questions and the search for understanding that faith finds its home. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and many theologians have borrowed from his quote to say “an unexamined faith is not worth believing.” I agree with both statements, and as a theologically-minded music fan, I would like to add another Socratic saying into the mix, “an unexamined album is not worth listening to.” Coldplay’s new album might not be a contemporary expression of Socratic philosophy or theology, but it’s definitely more than just another rock album.

Long live life!

“Viva La Vida” is a Spanish expression, and depending on who you talk to it means “long live life” or “live the life.” (“Viva La Vida” is also the name of a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which is where Coldplay got the name of the song/album, although that’s not the art that serves as the album’s cover.)

All four members of Coldplay (Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion) wrote the lyrics and music of Viva La Vida together – at least they all share the credit in the album’s liner notes – and listening to this album as a whole you get the sense that they are all very interested, if not obsessed with thoughts of death and dying, as well as heaven and hell. Viva La Vida is a deeply theological album, and there are moments when Martin, the voice of Coldplay’s music, sounds more like a prophet or priest than a rock star or pop-culture icon.

At times, Viva La Vida hints indirectly at themes that seem somewhat theological – for instance, ‘Strawberry Swing’ is a happy song that creates the mood and images of what a “perfect day” in heaven might be like (either that or it’s about a marching band of Oompa Loompas) – but I would like to focus the rest of this article on a few songs that dive directly into theological waters.

In the album’s co-title track ‘Viva La Vida’ (the song featured in the colorful iTunes commercial), Martin sings “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter will call my name.” To be completely honest, the first couple of dozen times I listened to this song I thought Martin was singing “I know Saint Peter WON’T call my name,” as if he thought Peter wasn’t going to be let him through the pearly gates. Even listening to the song really closely several times through didn’t help me determine if Peter “will” or “won’t” call his name. I think Martin’s British accent made it difficult for my American ears to decipher what he was saying, but I was also interpreting and making assumptions based on other songs on the album (see my thoughts on the song ‘42′ below). It wasn’t until I looked up the lyrics online (and checked at least four different websites to make sure they were correct) that I realized Martin was indeed singing, with what sounds like a sense of confused confidence, that he thinks Saint Peter WILL call his name and let him into heaven. This was quite a relief to me, since it hadn’t felt right driving around singing along with a song that was about not making it into heaven.

It’s a cool song musically; I just have no idea what it’s about.

The fourth track on the album is ‘42.’ The musical structure of ‘42′ will be familiar to Coldplay fans, as it starts out slow and peaceful – even somewhat boring (reminiscent of ‘Fix You’) – only to build and transform into an almost entirely different/driving rock song by the 1 minute and 30 second mark. In the second half of the song, after an extended instrumental interlude, the somewhat bizarre lyrics “You thought you might be a ghost” and “You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close” are repeated several times until the song ends with the same disturbing words it started with, “Those who are dead, are not dead, they’re just living in my head.”

I wish I knew who Martin was singing to in ‘42,’ or how he knows that the recipient of the song’s message didn’t get into heaven. As for what it means to “almost” make it to heaven? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a variation of the Catholic understanding of some sort of in-between place – not heaven, not hell (“purgatory”) – almost like a heavenly waiting room, where people hang out until learn whether or not they will get into heaven. It certainly seems to be based on an understanding of eternal life/salvation that requires good works. In some ways, it reminds me of NFL players, coaches and fans anxiously waiting to see if the call on the field will stand or be overturned after the referee reviews the play in question; since it’s all about performance and based on what happened (who did what, when and why). I personally have issues with understandings of faith that require anything, especially as it relates to salvation, but I will save those words for a different time and place.

Although there are only 10 tracks on Viva La Vida, three of them are two-for-ones (tracks that include two separate songs). Only one track is officially/appropriately labeled as a twofer (‘Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love’), but you can find titles for the other bonus songs online. (The song after ‘Yes’ is ‘Chinese Sleep Chant’ and the song after ‘Death and All His Friends’ is ‘The Escapist’.)

Although ‘Lovers in Japan’ is a nice tune that seems to be a fairly typical romantic love song, it’s the second song of the track (‘Reign of Love’) that is of more interest, for theological reasons. I can’t tell if the “reign of love” that Martin is singing about is of human or divine origins. There are a few spots in particular that confuse me. First, the word “locusts” is used in both the second and third stanzas. The word “locust” is not a very commonly used word these days – people usually just go with “grasshopper” – so when it shows up twice in a fairly short song, I notice. People familiar with the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures may recognize locusts as one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt that God inflicted on the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite people out of slavery (see Exodus 7-12, locusts were plague #8). The last two stanzas of the song (the post-locust verses) require some theological analysis. I’ll let you read the lyrics for yourself, but then I have some questions for you to think about in response.

Reign of love
By the church, we’re standing (1)
Reign of love
My knees go praying (2)

How I wish
We’d spoken up (3)
Or we’d be carried
In the reign of love (4)

(1) Do you think “reign of love” is another way of talking about God, or God’s sovereign love?

(2) Who is praying and what are they praying about? Since Martin is the one singing, is he praying? If so, what do you think he is praying about? Who is he praying to?

(3) What do he wish they’d spoken up about? Was it perhaps an injustice that displayed a lack of love?

(4) Are they being carried in the “reign of love,” or not? Is the “reign of love” a call for universal love, a worldwide “reign” of love ruling over all? or is it something more specific to faith/religion?

Aside from the few songs that were analyzed theologically above, there is a lot more material on Viva La Vida that could be included in theological conversation(s). I will leave most of that for others to do, but here are a few obvious “God spots” that deserve some attention.

From ‘Cemeteries of London’

  • “Through the dark streets they go searching to see God in their own way.”
  • “God is in the houses and God is in my head…I see God come in my garden but I don’t know what he said, for my heart it wasn’t open.”

From ‘Yes’

  • “Then we were dying of frustration, saying, ‘lord ‘lead me not into temptation.'”
  • “God only, god knows I’m trying my best. But I’m just so tired of this loneliness.”

From ‘Violet Hill’

  • “Priests clutched onto bibles, hollowed out to fit their rifles. And the cross was held aloft.”

From ‘The Escapist’

  • “And in the end, we lie awake. And we dream we’ll make an escape.”

Coldplay’s tour in support of the new album began in July, and as part of the tour, they are offering a free song for download to people who purchased tickets to a show. The song is titled ‘Death Will Never Conquer’ and it sounds a bit like a hymn. It includes the hopeful line “I hope sweet heaven is a place for me,” which seems to express a Christian understanding of eternal life and the hope of spending eternity with God. What do you think?

Is Viva La Vida the album people will remember Coldplay by?

Only time will tell how or if Coldplay will be remembered 30 years from now, and Viva La Vida certainly hasn’t been out long enough to determine whether it will be the album that defines their music (like Radiohead’s Ok Computer); but for now one thing is certain…it is a very good, if not a great album, and it says a lot about their beliefs in God, life, death and whatever comes next.

————————————————————

In case this wasn’t enough Coldplay for you, here are a few extras:

Rolling Stone recently featured an interview with Chris Martin titled “The Jesus of Uncool” in which Martin opens up about a whole slew of issues related to life, music and even his experiences growing up in the church (a portion of the article can be read on RollingStone.com).

Dan Kimball (pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA and author/speaker in the emerging church) wrote an interesting response to the Rolling Stone article on his blog a few weeks ago (it includes a few quotes from the interview that aren’t included online).

Chris Martin was interviewed by coldplay.com just before beginning their current tour and he talked a lot about what’s involved in taking their show on the road, how much control they have in making decisions about the production of their concerts and what you can expect to see if you see Coldplay live.

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7 thoughts on “Viva La Vida | a theological review of Coldplay’s new album

  1. More info on Delacroix’s “La Liberté guidant le peuple” from http://www.collegetermpapers.com/

    “Derived from many sources is Delacroix’s concept of Liberty. He shows liberty as a half woman of the people and half goddess. One source was form the summer of 1830 from a popular ode. The ode described Liberty as “this strong woman with powerful breast, rough voice and robust charm”.

    In Liberty Leading the People the half draped woman shows the allegorical figure of liberty. The woman is wearing the traditional Phrygian cap of Liberty. Liberty is holding the tricolor in one hand and a gun in the other.

    To use Lenormants word Liberty is said to be “a young, strong brilliant woman, dressed like one of the people, but shining with an unknown light, odd, however, in the nudity of her shoulders, the bonnet on her head, the standard that moves in her hand”. The static position of Liberty makes the entire work more dynamic.

    There are three men to the left of Liberty. They are in different categories of workers. The man with the saber is the factory worker. The man with the gun, sometimes called a student or a bourgeors, is the foreman, artisan or the chief of the workshop. The man kneeling at Liberty’s feet is the worker from the country. He is employed in the building trade. A cavalryman and a Swiss guard are the two dead soldiers to the right of Liberty. They belong to the royal guards’ regiment.

    Perfectly identifiable are the weapons and bits of uniform. With the greatest accuracy is how they were painted. Easily missed is a beautiful touch, a glimpse of old Paris through gun smoke, flying from the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a tiny tricolor flag, and washed and weathered by history is a row of ancient houses.

    Shown at the Salon of 1831, the painting was understood in various ways. Working class, a fishwife, and a whore is what the figure of Liberty was called by some people. Critics said that the painting was “A slander” of the five glorious days that Liberty was “ignoble” and that the insurgents represented a rude class of people, urchins and workmen.”

  2. Hey Andy,
    Great article! Those insights will be give me a lot to think about the next time I listen to the CD.

    Have a great rest of the weekend!

  3. Hey Andy,
    Awesome article! Is it going to be published somewhere? Nate just bought the album and we listened to it all weekend on a road trip to Indiana to hear his sister’s senior french horn recital. The album definitely helped move the trip along and I can’t wait to delve deeper into the lyrics.
    Hope to see you at Labor Day
    Anne

  4. Great review! It brought to mind Garden State, where Natalie Portman’s character proclaims, “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.”

    I think it’s true. For me, the last album to do so was Switchfoot’s 2003 album The Beautiful Letdown because it totally spoke to me and what I was going through as I was struggling to find a job and an identity to a certain extent.

    I’m looking forward to losing myself in this album. Thanks A!

  5. I think I have a take on “42”. I was listening to it today while I had a lull at work, so I was really paying attention to the lyrics. I’ll try and break them down and hopefully it will make some sense…

    “Those who are dead, are not dead, they’re just living in my head.”
    The person who has passed away is living on in Martin’s memory. When our loved ones die, a part of them, the part that had an impact on our lives, lives on within us. Indeed, memories made with a loved one can be a source of peace and relief when grieving, but they can also cause more grief, as the next line indicates.

    “And since I fell, for that spell, I am living there as well.”
    This line deals with the difficulty of letting go. By refusing to deal with the reality that his loved one is gone, Martin is living in/clinging to the past, a world that now only exists in his mind. Grief is interfering with his every day existence and he is having trouble facing up to the pain. Whoever it is that died was loved so profoundly that he subconsciously thinks that it is better to stay in this dream world, moving through real life in a numb trance (hence the slow, heavy, almost eerie instrumental part), rather than making peace with the situation by balancing the desire to keep the loved one’s memory fresh and the need to move forward with life.

    “Time is so short, and you’re sure that there must be something more.”
    This is the turning point. Martin “wakes up” from the “trance” and realizes that he can’t keep living that way. Maybe he realizes that God has other plans for him and that to accomplish them he can’t keep wallowing in his grief because if he continues to do so, his opportunity will be lost.

    “You thought you might be a ghost, you thought you might be a ghost. You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close.”
    The tempo shifts here and the whole song becomes upbeat, almost optimistic. The change to a major tonality is gradual though. At first the music is aggressive, almost angry. Martin is trying to get free, but is still being held back, perhaps feeling torn/guilty about moving on. The addition of the guitar countermelody kind of clashes with the aggressive bass line, representing some kind of inner struggle. The addition of keyboards and vocals, the transition from a minor key to a major one, and the cessation of the bass/guitar clash signal that he’s finally done it; he has broken free of his all-consuming grief. The music is moving forward, symbolizing Martin’s new will to move forward with his life. He’s looking back now, seeing that while he was mired in grief, he wasn’t really living. He was a “dead man walking”, if you will, probably wishing that he had died along with his loved one. He didn’t get to heaven because he didn’t really die, but he came close because he wasn’t really living either.

    The repetition of the first line and the abrupt return to the original musical style might represent those waves of grief that come over us occasionally, like when some little thing brings up the memory of a lost loved one unexpectedly. Even though he’s moved forward with life, the memory of the loved one is still there and still just as cherished. The difference is that it doesn’t hang over him like a cloud anymore, preventing him from living a full life.

    I think Martin is singing this song to himself. It’s introspective, almost as if he is pacing in an empty room and thinking aloud. I still have no clue why the song is called “42” though. Maybe the band will clear that up at their show in November…

  6. These are great thoughts Kelly, thanks for sharing them. I can definitely see the song as introspective and I really like your thought that the lyric “didn’t get to heaven but you made it close” as a way of saying that a person was so affected by the death of a friend that it’s almost like they died them self.

  7. Hi Andy! I was reading this article on theologians’ changing views on Harry Potter (I’m a big fan) and remembered your blog, and thought you might be interested:

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/16/how_the_boy_wizard_won_over_religious_critics/?page=2

    Great article here, though unfortunately, the Viva La Vida lyrics are “won’t” and not “will” according to Coldplay’s Web site. Gives entirely different meaning to the song – one that I’m not sure I like as much. I do think it’s interesting how many religious references are in the song though. Aside from the obvious one about St. Peter, you have Jerusalem bells, missionaries, pillars of salt, heads on silver plates…

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