Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Muse - The 2nd Law

Muse - The 2nd Law
Helium 3/Warner, 2012
3.5 stars

I’ve personally never really cared for Muse, either in regards to their bombastic arrangements or to singer Matt Bellamy’s endlessly histrionic wailings. And it’s not that the band’s fusion of Queen, Radiohead, electronica, and classical music is particularly off-putting, but rather that their albums, especially 2003’s Absolution (considered by many to be their best) grow exhausting in their attempt to keep the emotional intensity at a fever pitch throughout.

It is in this relatively neutral state that I come to Muse’s latest record, an ambitious, pseudo-conceptual piece called The 2nd Law, which, in its 53-minute runtime, wanders from a 007-flavored introduction (echoes of the famous spy theme float through the background of “Supremacy”), to imitations of Achtung Baby-era U2 (the album’s first single, “Madness,” is a dead-ringer for many of that 1991 album’s big dance-rock hits), all the way to a bizarre dubstep suite (the two-part title track, which encompasses segments called “Unsustainable” and “Isolated System.”)

Make no mistake, this is an ambitious record, an album that flits between styles and sounds with no warning whatsoever. The versatility is welcome, of course, but for some (die-hard fans yearning for the band’s initial sound, most likely), the shifts will prove jarring and almost laughably self-serious. Case-in-point is “Panic Station,” an infectious piece of funk-pop that lands somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, or “Survival,” which starts out sounding like a freaking Mika song, adds a baroque choir within the first minute, and bursts apart with a Queen-sized guitar solo halfway through—all without the slightest trace of irony.

The 2nd Law is at its best when the band tones down those indulgences. “Madness” is a perfect example of this, surrounding listeners with an atmospheric back-up vocal groove and allowing Bellamy a chance to drop his usual over-emotive tendencies in favor of his best Bono impersonation. When a funky and spontaneous guitar solo crushes through the texture towards the end of the song, the feeling is both quirky and euphoric.

The U2 influence rears its head again on “Big Freeze,” another nostalgic eighties/nineties radio rock hybrid which parallels Achtung Baby’s deep album tracks just as “Madness” reaches for its singles. Considering the still-fascinating qualities of U2’s most successful musical left turn (an album that celebrated its 20th birthday last fall), it’s no wonder that Muse turned to Achtung for inspiration as they cultivated their own grand departure. Bellamy and company joined U2 on tour last year for the 360 tour (the most successful concert tour in history), and clearly, they took a few things away from that experience.

“Follow Me” is another one of the album’s strongest cuts, beginning with a spacious gospel-flavored vocal solo, transforming into a dance-pop disco swirl (complete with a driving beat and a wall of synthesizers), and climaxing with a ringing guitar cascade that would make the Edge himself proud. “Animals,” on the other hand, puts everything in reverse, an atmospheric keyboard-based number which re-states the band’s prevalent Radiohead influence and which, cut across by a nicely spacey electric guitar line, feels positively otherworldly.

Results are decidedly more mixed when Bellamy hands writing (and singing) duties off to bassist Christopher Wolstenholme on the album’s penultimate duo, “Save Me” and “Liquid State.” The former is a hazy, dreamy piece of nineties balladry, readymade for a climactic moment in some cinematic romance. The song feels notably out of place on The 2nd Law, with decidedly earthbound ambitions and an overall sound that genuinely feels like a different band. Still, the change-up is welcome, and “Save Me,” with its lovelorn sweep and its gorgeously swelling arrangement, is one of the best surprises here. The grungy scratch of “Liquid State” falls completely on the other end of the spectrum, functioning, at its best, as a less effective version of “Supremacy” and, at its worst, like a piece of turn-of-the-century alternative rock (Three Days Grace and Staind certainly come to mind).

Muse’s overblown ambitions reach the point of hubristic downfall on the album’s grand finale, the aforementioned two-part title track. Part I, “Unsustainable,” never feels like anything more than an experiment gone wrong, mixing orchestral elements with robotic sounds, dubstep explosions, and Bellamy’s overdramatic cries. Part II, “Isolated System,” works out a little better, with a ringing, minimalistic piano intro hinting at a climatic build. Unfortunately, the song never makes good on that promise: Muse add in some electronic distractions towards the end, but on the whole, the composition never does anything the least bit exciting, and it serves as a disappointing fade-out to an uneven and often frustrating album.

But even despite the fact that The 2nd Law burns out two-thirds of the way through, it’s not a bad album. I applaud a band, especially one with as much mainstream publicity as Muse, willing to go as off-the-wall crazy as they do on this record. The 2nd Law is the sound of one of the world’s biggest rock bands throwing everything at the canvas and seeing what sticks, a band giving themselves over to their indulgences and influences without reservation or pulled punch throughout. That mentality doesn’t always beget the best albums, and it certainly doesn’t create the most cohesive ones (see The Killers’ Day & Age), but it also rarely fails to deliver at least a few fascinating moments, and The 2nd Law has one or two of those up its sleeve. That an album like this (a band given budget and larger-than-life production values to indulge their every quirk and fancy) even exists in this modern age is interesting; that one can sell almost 130,000 copies in its first week is even more baffling.

And while Bellamy may have pointed towards Achtung Baby as his band’s primary influence here, The 2nd Law is more reminiscent of that album’s follow-up. 1993’s Zooropa remains, to this day, the most misunderstood album U2 ever made, a disjointed collection of pop songs that injected even more electronic influence into the band’s sound and wandered further from the mainstream than their label had ever anticipated. From its atmospheric nineties leanings to Bellamy’s consistently on-the-mark channeling of Bono, it’s not too hard to imagine The 2nd Law having a similar legacy ten or twenty years down the road: not a great album, but an adventurous one.


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  2. I read this on AP.net but didn't comment. You praise them for being adventurous and going crazy, but I think The 2nd Law is actually a lot more down-to-earth and less experimental than at least The Resistance. For me, the problem is they didn't go far enough with this album, it had the potential to be so much more.

    Even though it can't compare to anything else since Absolution (which really is the best :D I'm a huge Muse fan, btw), I still enjoy it a lot. Madness is fantastic...

    Nevertheless, well written review, like always. ;)

    1. Definitely less experimental than The Resistance, which pretty much went all-out classical at least a few times (I'm going off faded memories of that record...haven't heard it in ages). I personally like this one better.