If I could name a single song that best exemplifies Coldplay’s greatness, it would be “Viva La Vida.” Musically, it was unlike anything they had done before, lushly orchestrated, hardly a rock song at all. But the musical power is evident. And the lyrics were easily the best they (or anyone else) had ever written.
“Viva La Vida” is without a doubt one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever had the “pleasure” of listening to…and it’s not even a love song! Even the song/album title is heartbreaking. “Viva La Vida,” which means “Long Live Life,” was chosen after frontman Chris Martin saw the words on a painting of Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who survived polio, a broken spine, and years of chronic pain
The song is just as daring and unusual. The singer is someone who was once so powerful that his greatness conquered the world, or as bassist Guy Berryman explained to what magazine, “It’s a story about a king who has lost his kingdom” The man who sang the song was a colossus, a king, almighty, almighty. It was awesome to hold. The military might of him could reduce the splinter resistant doors. His worst enemies were very afraid of him. Even the very seas were under his command.
But now his power has been stripped away and he has become the meanest, lowest creature in the realm, or (as the singer himself puts it so simply) he now “sweeps the streets he used to have.” He discovered that his strength was as fragile as it was immense. Bells and choirs now announce his fall. And though he can’t accurately describe What he knows it to be true, he is certain that when he dies he will be denied entrance to heaven.
Part of the lyrical power comes from the use of biblical imagery. In the Old Testament, Lot’s wife becomes a “pillar of salt” when she looks back to see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the New Testament Jesus tells the parable of a wise man who built his house on rock while a fool builds his house on sand; wind, rain and floods destroy the latter but forgive the former. Add to that the references to Jerusalem, the Roman cavalry and Saint Peter.
Did the band members have someone specific in mind when they composed the song? Obviously not. Although the album cover is a painting by Eugène Delacroix Liberty leading the people, inspired by the French Revolution of 1830, the band members have been adamant that they were talking about kings in general, not one monarch in particular. Still, as vocalist Chris Martin described the lyrics about Saint Peter to Q Magazine, “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ending your life and then being analyzed in it. And that’s what happens with most religions… That’s the scariest thing you could say to someone. Eternal curse… It’s still a bit scary to me.”