If Muse somehow became giants that played neon-colored Ferrari’s as instruments, their sound still wouldn’t be as big as they’d always dreamed. Barring freak magic accidents, the trio will have to continue with Plan A: giving every fiber of their collective being to become the new Queen even as they recognize the sheer impossibility. In spirit, their sixth album, The 2nd Law, is another step in that journey, combining over-the-top rock anthems with more linear EDM influences. Yet the 13 tracks lack some focus and cohesion, weakening what should be a limitless, quasi-spiritual slice of rock and roll transcendence.
The path to rock enlightenment begins with “Madness”. Here, frontman Matt Bellamy assumes the role of pop philosopher, musing how love’s most wicked dealings and poisonous words make us run back every time. Sweet and sentimental, you’re hoping maybe, until finally he solves the problem and figures out why love makes us bonkers. But the robotic female sample and rumbling bass snuff out any chance that our rock savior will achieve his goal, stripping much of the potential passion away because of an incomplete and unnecessarily minimalist beat. These limitations Muse imposes on itself don’t gel with their all-climax-everything sound, which is often why its presence is often so befuddling
Thankfully, “Save Me” has less problems with its musical choices. Muse’s pomp-rock is more than loud noises and forging emotional bonds as quickly and cheap as possible. This cut proves they understand how to build up a song, to create a shared sense of vulnerability and wind it up slowly with a spiraling guitar that sparkles as it ascends and Bellamy’s mantras. But after it peaks, the listener is left with a painful realization: These are just fancy cries for help lacking true depth and meaningfulness, spun for the sake of luring listeners in. The danger of being so grandiose is you run the risk of not having the correct matching sentiment, so the band is forced to fill the remaining space with meaningless distractions a la a musical bread and games.
There are moments on the album where the shine does have underlying substance. “Animals” is the busiest cut, a multi-headed hydra of weepy, lonesome slide guitar, sultrier, semi-folklorico guitar, and pounding drums with their own intentions, all clung together with Bellamy’s especially evocative performance. While that clutter could lead to more overwrought bombast, the band keeps grounded by focusing on the lyrics, which offer both depth and meaning (consumerism as a primal reaction) and sound neat to boot (“Franchise/ Spread out/ Kill the competition and buy yourself an ocean”). More than pretty words, lyrics are Muse’s anchor, securing them to the world and preventing them from floating off into the ughh-esphere.
“Survival” isn’t nearly as grounded, but it’s effective because Muse delivers its most cohesive message. Clearly ripped from Slayer had they existed in the Flash Gordon universe, the lyrics are an uninspired comparison of life to some manly duel or harrowing race (“And I’ll light the fuse/ And I’ll never lose/ And I choose to survive/ Whatever it takes/ You won’t pull ahead”). But the band forgoes subtlety and value, instead delivering a comically oversized metal march of operatic vocals, guitars swinging like battle axes, and a farcical load of testosterone. That dedication to going all in all the time is missing from a lot of the LP, and would go a long, long ways to silencing doubters and rewarding fans of their band’s inherent theatricality.
There are times where Muse leaves the Queen-dom to invade U2’s territory, with Bellamy’s vocals adopting the desperate shakiness of a spiritual leader. U2 has always received complaints and critiques of being over-the-top, but they’ve made a long-lasting and successful career by making the melodramatic appealing. While Muse is clearly battling with their sound and maintaining its size and scope, there may be a lesson to learn from Bono and co.
And no The 2nd Law review would be complete without addressing the wobbly elephant in the room: the dubstep influence the band proudly touted from day one. While “The 2nd Law: Isolated System” has EDM-tinged strings and minor dubstep-ian noise spurts, “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” is the true dubstep nexus, with mounds of Skrillex-inspired bass drops and disheartening noises shake the standard Muse song structure. It’s the sort of un-subtle, uncompromising, and ultra-theatrical addition that Muse needed to convince the industry that grandiosity and a knack for the overblown can be good things. Most bands wouldn’t have taken those odds, but it’s further cemented the legacy of Muse as a colossus of genuine rock and roll jubilation.
Essential Tracks: “Survival”, “Animals”