Thursday, 19 June 2008

Coldplay: Viva la vida on religious violence

Coldplay's latest offering, 'Viva La Vida' Or 'Death And All His Friends', to give the album its full title is, by most people's opinions, quite a departure from recent albums.

Not only is the sound quite different (no doubt at least partly due to the influence of Brian Eno), but so is the intensity of the lyrics. Gone, it would seem, are the days of arbitrary and semantic nonsense of songs like Yellow. And Chris Martin's lower pitch and the balance of the songs in this album draws more attention to the songs' lyrics.

Over a couple of posts, I plan to look at some of the lyrical themes.

One of the key motifs is that of religious violence. The first track with words on the album, Cemeteries of London, provides a case in point. It is a song about the drowning of witches. Chris Martin spoke of the song recently saying this: 'I was interested about that period in London where people were supposedly drowned for being a witch. And that’s where that song came from. About being accused of something you didn’t do.' The accusers are clearly religious ones. One of the lyrics puts it like this: 'Through the dark streets they go searching to see God in their own way.'

Light and darkness is a key theme that runs throughout the album. And so the song concludes suitably depressingly in its judgement: 'There’s no light over London today.'

The two singles from the album, Viva la Vida and Violet Hill, also concern religious violence. In Viva la Vida, the narrator appears to be an army commander who legitimates his actions by appealing to the authority of God. Mention of the city of Jerusalem may allude to the Crusades, although it could refer more widely. Either way, it’s clear that Christianity is very much in mind where one hears the lyric: ‘For some reason I can't explain / I know Saint Peter will call my name / Never an honest word / But that was when I ruled the world.’ The mention of Peter, who holds ‘the keys of the church’, brings heaven into mind. It’s not clear whether the story-teller regrets the lies that went with his campaign.

Violet Hill is told from the point of view of a (possibly dead) foot soldier. Again, the link between religious violence and Christianity is made very clear: ‘Priests clutched onto Bibles / And went out to fit their rifles / And the Cross was held aloft.’ If, as is my hunch, the song is told from the point of view of someone that died in battle, the refrain and final lyric becomes particularly poignant, referring to a relationship prematurely ended in an unnecessary death in the name of Christ.

These songs could refer historically to the many occasions when Christians have appeared to endorse violence. It would seem very likely to me that there’s at least some critical reference to the Religious Right’s endorsement of the American violent invasion of Iraq and the many deaths that have occurred there. If so, Coldplay’s lyrics reflect a wide suspicion that, at best, Christianity can often be misused or, at worst, it induces violence – just as it did during the trial of witches and during the Crusades.

That sort of violence is far from condoned in the teaching of Jesus – indeed, it is criticised. Authentic Christianity would never condone the Crusades or the freedom of thought. Yet Coldplay’s lyrics show that many are still suspicious – and angry – of power play in the name of Christ around the world in history and even today.


Anonymous said...

the lyrics are actually 'st Peter WON"T call my name' much more interesting i think

peterdray said...

well possibly - I think the pronounciation of the lyric has been left deliberately obscure on the track!

Anonymous said...

It's funny that, I find the lyrics in viva la vida really helpful spiritually. There IS the talk about having ruled the world, having been a liar, having had material power in the past - but that having gone, and ears now being open to Jerusalem bells etc. and a certain hope that somehow, the singer has a place in heaven. Afterall, the song is called "live the life", and the album subtitled "or death and all his friends" - that is the choice, life or death, God or none - and as Chris sings in one of the later tracks on the album, "I don't want to follow death and all of his friends". I think it's an amazingly powerful album, the most Christian inspiration to be authentic that I have experienced in a long time.