In their most starry-eyed moments, partisans of Coldplay have envisioned the English band as a potential successor to U2's throne. Well, the group has taken at least a small step in that direction. Its new album "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends," which comes out June 17, was co-produced by Brian Eno, a principal player in U2's studio team.
The first single, which was released to radio and as a free (for one week) download on Coldplay's website Tuesday, is "Violet Hill," and while one track might or might not define the entire album, this one does send a signal that the group has broken out of an increasingly confining formula.
It opens with a slow-building orchestral/electronic mass, a meditative moment that's interrupted suddenly -- almost abruptly -- by Chris Martin singing an ominous line: "Was a long and dark December/ From the rooftops I remember there was snow, white snow."
Martin's everyman British voice is familiar, but it has a slightly different quality here, a twangy intonation and more biting attack. The guitar and rhythm section quickly rush in with a thick, almost sloppy sound and insistent, loping beat.
The effect is miles away from the polished, piano-based arrangements that made Coldplay one of the biggest bands in pop music earlier this decade.
But it was the emotion and urgency of its first two albums that positioned the London quartet as more than a huge-selling pop group. There was a sense of connection and inspiration that if fully realized might command the sweeping vision and deep-seated loyalty enjoyed by U2 and the few other rock institutions on that level.
But the recording of their third album, "X&Y;," was plagued by uncertainty and false starts, and when it came out in 2005 it didn't find the same level of sales or acclaim. At their last major L.A. concert, at the Forum in 2006, they seemed to be at a crossroads, confined by their formula but stymied about how to proceed.
Hiring Eno apparently helped, assuming he and co-producers Markus Dravs and Rik Sampson were involved in designing the harder sound and coaxing the free-spirited performance.
But Martin also sounds more urgently involved as a singer and lyricist, conjuring a vivid yet elusive landscape of social upheaval.
Military and religious imagery entwine in the song, which evokes that wintry hell "when banks became cathedrals" and "priests clutched onto Bibles hollowed out to fill their rifles."
The group's management reported Wednesday that 600,000 downloads were ordered in the first 24 hours. The band will try to keep the momentum by playing free concerts in London and New York in June, followed by a North American tour this summer.
Artistically and in terms of response, it's a promising return. Maybe Coldplay has found what it was looking for.