I was having a hard time understanding the animosity all the teaser songs that got airplay in the run up to The 2nd Law –Muse’s sixth studio album—were receiving. I’ve come to expect it from the casual listeners but I was genuinely perplexed by the ‘long-time fans’ who were against the bands new sound. Muse have always been difficult for many to swallow, due in no small part to Matt Bellamy’s insanity, but that weirdness is what always made Muse brilliant: while everyone else was writing drivel about the glory of youth and love Muse were singing about medieval space ghosts and the Illuminati.
It wasn’t until I came across a Youtube comment someone left on the video for Madness that I finally realised the problem. I’ve forgotten exactly how the comment went because I have a habit of not remembering the mutterings of fools but here’s the gist: ‘Muse hit their stride with Absolution and have been going downhill ever since.’ Ah, now I see.
Don’t get me wrong, Absolution was an incredible album, and almost definitely responsible for making the band a household name, but it wasn’t their best album. What it was was their most commercial album. With the exception of the final track, there wasn’t a single tune on Absolution that couldn’t have been a single and, while that would be a compliment for any other band, in Muse’s case it resulted in probably the most boring thing they’ve ever done.
Absolution was the album Muse needed to make to finally get the recognition they deserved, but everything since has proved that, above all else, the band are about making music; not being commercial or even pleasing fans. Black Holes & Revelations, the follow-up, showed a return to the impeccable songcraft and wonderful eccentricity of Origin of Symmetry while maintaining the marketability of Absolution, and the only criticism I ever had of the album is that it marked the beginning of, in my opinion, Matt’s dispiriting eagerness to shoehorn his political agenda into the lyrics.
The Resistance was a much harder album to love. Musically it was competent, carrying all the hallmarks of a Muse album –catchy riffs, incredible orchestral arrangements, stunning vocals etc.– and I think it’s a testament to how great a band are when you can have all those things in an album and still consider it distinctly average in a relative sense. The real problem I’ve always had with The Resistance is the lyrics. By this point, Matt’s writing had descended into full-on propaganda-mode and it was just too hard to take seriously, anymore. I don’t generally mind when musicians decide to get political, but I appreciate it when they’re kind enough to veil it in metaphors. Listening to The Resistance is like attending a rally for Matt Bellamy’s new world order.
Also notable about The Resistance was that it marked the start of infuriating comparisons to Queen that more recent tracks like Survival have failed to quash. I’m not denying that there were Queen-esque touches in United States of Eurasia, but I’ve always wanted to ask: when did being compared to one of the most revered bands in history become a bad thing?
Ironically, there is one comparison that can be drawn between Queen and Muse that would be accurate, but is seldom considered: Queen stayed relevant and interesting by constantly changing their sound. Listen to early stuff like Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Killer Queen then compare it to Radio Ga Ga or Innuendo. It could be two –maybe even three– completely different bands, were it not for the distinct sound of Freddie Mercury’s inimitable vocals.
Muse are exactly the same in that respect: no matter how much their sound changes, Matt Bellamy has a vocal range miles and miles above any of his contemporaries. Are there better singers than him, out there? Of course. But there are better guitarists too, and I guarantee you most people would rather listen to 2nd Law than whatever it is Yngwie Malmsteen is up to at the moment, because people will always be more interested in a melody and composition than listening to you practice scales for ten boring minutes.
That slight tangent has actually thrown me back on course for what I was trying to say: 2nd Law is god damn fantastic. It’s Muse’s most exciting album since Origin of Symmetry and, from what I can gather, that is precisely why so many people are unhappy with it. Remember how annoying it was when all those idiots turned up late to the party in 2003 and thought Blink 182’s self-titled album was their debut? How many of them do you think, upon listening to Dude Ranch or even Enema of the State, said, ‘what the hell is this? This isn’t the real Blink 182’.
That is ultimately what I’m driving at: all the people who jumped on the bus at Absolution had absolutely no idea how weird the band really are and how tame an album it actually was; likewise, everyone who was around before and is now complaining about Muse losing their touch seems to have forgotten that Muse are a band who are constantly experimenting and evolving their sound and, as with any experiment, there will be an occasional misfire.
I have no doubt in my mind that, if such was their wont, the band could have churned out hit-maker after hit-maker from now until they call a hiatus and start planning the inevitable comeback album, but what would be the point in that? Why do you want another Absolution when Absolution already exists?
This is the same argument I found myself dragged into when Daniel Craig was announced as James Bond, or when screens for Resident Evil 4 showed the new game abandoning its survival horror roots; people were in conniptions over these new instalments because they’d apparently ruined their respective series by choosing to change the format instead of releasing a new version of the exact same thing every year from now until the end of time, like the Call of Duty series or absolutely any film in which Jason Statham gets top billing.
And here’s the thing: I love that when I play CoD I get exactly the experience I am expecting; I love that when I watch a Transporter film I get exactly what I expect to see. There’s some truth to the adage that you can never have too much of a good thing but, in an age when now more than ever people are complaining about everything being the same, we shouldn’t be so quick to reject the artists that decide to do something different instead of resting on their laurels and living off royalties the rest of their lives.
2nd Law is a great album. Yes it’s weird, (one song sounds like Prince in full-on funk-mode, another sounds like Skrillex; there are some flourishes of Queen in there,) but it never stops being a fascinating album and, most importantly, it never stops sounding like Muse.
While it will alienate anyone who maintains that Hysteria or Starlight are the best thing the band have ever done, for me, it’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard all year. Hell, it might be the most exciting thing I’ve heard since I put on Origin of Symmetry, over a decade ago, and heard Megalomania for the first time.