Covers Corner: “The Scientist” by Willie Nelson

Before Coldplay collaborated with the likes of Rihanna, The Chainsmokers, and, most recently, BTS, they were best known for coffee shop ballads that veered into the atmospheric (see: “Viva la Vida”). Songs such as “Yellow,” “Clocks,” “Green Eyes,” and “Fix You” got them noticed. “The Scientist” is another early hit; if I’m being honest, it’s actually my favorite Coldplay song.

“The Scientist” is just so moving. It describes the inability of logic and reason to describe why a relationship might be falling apart. “Questions of science/Science and progress/Do not speak as loud as my heart.” Chris Martin sings feelingly here, especially when he pleads, “Oh, take me back to the start.” You wish for that moment to go back to the good. The song itself is rather spare. It focuses on piano, with eventual soft guitar and drums. Oof.

Willie Nelson’s take on this song is probably one of its better-known covers. His version has twangy guitar rather than piano, and his distinctive, gravelly, grownup-cowboy voice makes the song more mature. Here, the song feels grounded; perhaps that’s because it’s slower. When he sings, “Nobody said it was easy,” you get the sense that he’s speaking from a great deal of experience. Indeed, at the lyric, “I was just guessing/At numbers and figures/Pulling the puzzles apart,” there’s a different level of introspection there than in the Coldplay version. And there’s comfort there, too.

I have to say, I like the Willie Nelson version better, probably for those reasons. The lyrics themselves are lovely, and he gives them a nice extra weight.

Unfortunately, his cover isn’t available on Spotify, so I’ll post the YouTube link instead.

Throwback Thursday: “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay

Coldplay’s 2008 album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends is right up there with Fiona Apple for long album titles. It’s more experimental and even pensive than their previous efforts. The cover is the painting Liberty Leading the People, which provides a hint as to the album’s themes: war; loss; love. With Parachutes, Coldplay’s debut, you had the iconic “Yellow,” which introduced us to Chris Martin’s falsetto. Here, his vocals are used to great effect. Its softness belies the universality of Viva la Vida…‘s lyrics.

The breakout star of the album is the song of the same name, so that’s primarily what I’d like to discuss today. It was truly inescapable back in 2008. “Viva la Vida” inspired cello covers and a truly excellent mashup with Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” another song from that year that you couldn’t get away from. Today, of course, the song lives on in meme form.

The song is incredibly sweeping, thanks to the lyrical content and the string section that supports it. The Wall of Sound-esque effect almost drowns out the story. It’s a sad one. “Viva la Vida” describes a fallen emperor who used to “rule the world” and “feel the fear in my enemies’ eyes.” He commanded “missionaries in a foreign field.” Now, however, the narrator is plagued by revolutionaries who “wait/for my head on a silver plate.”

On its face, “Viva la Vida” is an intriguing song. It’s not relatable, unless you’re a historic British king. It’s not your stereotypical pop song, either. And yet its very quirkiness makes it catchy. You want to keep listening, if only to hear the rest of the story.