Coldplay's encounter with God in Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

Who would ever want to be king?

Coldplay's latest album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, has been an international success. The title track, 'Viva la Vida', was the first UK single to top the US music charts since the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' in 1997, and the album is the second fastest-selling album in UK history as well as being the best selling release in iTunes' history.

It certainly appears that it has struck a chord with album reviewers and music fans alike, yet the album focuses widely on disillusionment, disappointment and despair. Thematically and lyrically, the content of the album is very different from the current spectrum of bands and genres.

Conceptually, the album is very tight as it explores different thought processes about a common theme. After the hopefully-titled introductory track, 'Life In Technicolor', Coldplay set the scene of mystery and suspense with the eerie story told in the song 'Cemeteries of London', which tells the tale of an unspecified 'they' who explore London during the night, 'searching to see God in their own way'. As the story unfolds, the adventurers search on until they discover what they look for, but, apparently, were not prepared to encounter:

God is in the houses and God is in my head . . . and all the cemeteries in London . . . I see God come in my garden, but I don't know what he said, For my heart it wasn't open.

The results of this encounter with God pervade the entire remainder of the album, as the songs reflect upon the brevity of life, and the feeling that 'there must be something more' ('42'). This awareness of the temporality of life is most perfectly expressed in the single that has hit number one in the UK and the US, 'Viva La Vida', which tells a story 'about a king who's lost his kingdom'(Guy Berryman, bassist). The song juxtaposes the power the king once had, and the swiftness with which that disappeared, emphasizing the fallibility of his systems of power and security:

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt, and pillars of sand

This is very much like King Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a great statue that was destroyed. As Daniel interprets the dream, he emphasizes God's sovereignty over all earthly rulers, 'He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them' (Daniel 2:21).

What Chris Martin communicates in these songs is a feeling of existential anxiety, a realisation of one's own insignificance in the scope of time and space. This generally leads to the sentiments of nihilism and worthlessness that appear in other songs on the album, as Martin sings, 'I'm just waiting til the shine wears off' ('Lost!'). The realisation that things are temporary, and that there is a greater reality after death, often leads to a great insecurity and a dissatisfaction with current structures of security in life, places where we'd once put all our hope.

© Copyright George Critchley (2008)

The writer of Ecclesiastes shares this experience as he writes:

Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.
What does anyone gain from their toil under the sun?
Generations come and go but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, NIV)

The reason he sees for this lack of meaning, is that 'God has put eternity in the hearts of men' (Ecc. 3:11), which suggests that, compared to eternity, everything else is temporary and therefore useless. In the chorus of 'Viva La Vida', the thought comes to the displaced king that, despite all his time and effort constructing a great and powerful kingdom, with security and wealth, he has wasted his time, as all his work has not earned him a place in heaven: 'I know Saint Peter won't call my name.'

Even the singer says it is about arriving at the Pearly gates. 'It's about . . .[finding] you're not on the list . . . It's always fascinated me, that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it,' Martin told Q magazine.

Thankfully, this bitter regret at the realisation of a wasted life does not need to be an inevitability, as Jesus revealed that there is a way to 'store up treasure in heaven' (Matthew 6:19-24). This doesn't mean working just as hard for worthy causes, but instead making Jesus your treasure, for when all else passes away, all kingdoms have fallen, and all security is gone, God will remain: timeless, everlasting, unchanging and secure.

As this Coldplay album finishes, the final track illustrates the conclusion they have reached as a result of this discovery of the temporary nature of the world, and the inevitability of death, as the whole band sing in unison:

I don't want to battle from beginning to end,
I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge,
I don't want to follow death and all of his friends.

It appears that the best selling album of the year, a record-breaker by many accounts, is one which taps into the yearning of every heart, for eternity, for peace, and ultimately, for God.

This article was first published on Damaris' Culturewatch website ( - used with permission.
© Copyright George Critchley (2008)

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