Muse – ‘The 2nd Law’ Review

November 1, 2012 9:51 pm

Newton’s second law of motion describes the relationship between mass, force and acceleration on an object. Isaac Asimov’s Second Law of Robotics states that a robot must obey the commands given to it by a human being, unless such commands would result in a human being coming to harm. And the second law of fight club is, of course, that you do not talk about fight club. Any one of these laws could have quite conceivably formed the basis of Muse’s latest offering The 2nd Law, and indeed, knowing the latent eccentricity of frontman Matt Bellamy, it is quite possible that they still do in some as yet undiscovered and inevitably ridiculous way. It is the second law of thermodynamics, though, which reportedly serves as the album’s namesake and forms the crux of its closing suite of tracks, leaving listeners with the stark and uncompromising reality that:

“the fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement. In an isolated system the entropy can only increase. A species set on endless growth is unsustainable”.

So far, so Muse. Having developed something of a reputation for conceptual pretentiousness, apocalyptic moralising and operatic hyperbole over the course of the last decade, as well as for delivering the most grandiose, bombastic, balls-to-the-wall live shows this side of the Milky Way, the invocation of the second law of thermodynamics as the chief conceit of The 2nd Law is not all that surprising. In fact, it’s almost business as usual, though the band themselves would have it that their sixth studio album is anything but. With statements that their latest represents “something radically different” from their previous work as well as “drawing a line under a certain period” of their career up to now, all evidence points to the conclusion that everything we thought we knew about Muse is about to be turned on its head; that the new Muse are bigger, bolder and better than ever before, and that The 2nd Law is the album that makes all of this possible.

The truth lies somewhere in between these two polarised opinions. It quickly becomes abundantly clear, for example, that The 2nd Law is easily Muse’s most ambitious, chaotic and fundamentally experimental record to date, incorporating a bewildering number of musical styles and influences, including camp Queen-infused harmonies and gentle electronica on ‘Madness’, meaty bass-driven funk on upcoming single ‘Panic Station’, inoffensive mainstream club dance on ‘Follow Me’ and tongue-in-cheek hyper dubstep on ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’. The 2nd Law is also noteworthy for marking bassist Chris Wolstenholme’s song-writing debut with the contribution of two tracks on which he also provides lead vocals, temporarily relieving Matt Bellamy of his accustomed role for the first time in Muse’s eighteen year history. The result of all of this is an album which is something of an oddity: it is familiar yet strange, complete but also somehow lacking, and though not necessarily a bad album by any means, it’s not particularly outstanding either.

There is nothing new in bands exploring or evolving into a different style over the course of their career (see Radiohead’s Kid A, hailed by many as the best album of the 2000s for its masterful handling of just such a change of direction), but too often here does that exploration tend to express itself as uninspired, fleeting imitation of other musicians who, to put it simply, do it a lot better. Funk-soaked ‘Panic Station’ sounds like some sort of bizarre Red Hot Chili Peppers outtake, whilst Chris Wolstenholme’s second contribution ‘Liquid State’ could easily pass for a Foo Fighters track but for the absence of Dave Grohl’s trademark tones. The influence of Queen, and in particular the song ‘I Want to Break Free’, on the aforementioned ‘Madness’ has been well documented, but once you’ve heard the likeness it becomes impossible to hear anything else (my apologies to anyone who has just had that song ruined for them by me). This is a pattern that repeats throughout The 2nd Law and which seems both artificial and temporary, with each of the many musical threads pursued here seeming more of a flirtation with the notion of change rather than a genuine attempt at reinvention.

The difficulty of judging these tracks purely on their own merits is further heightened given the consideration that this may have been Muse’s plan all along. Those who have been eagerly following the genesis of The 2nd Law on Twitter (or who, like me, have resorted to a frantic perusal of its Wikipedia page) will have noted Bellamy’s description of the album as a “christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”. So he wasn’t being completely serious, granted, but in the light of such comments, however playful, it is hard for The 2nd Law to avoid suddenly taking on an unpleasant air of smug self-satisfaction. What the album boils down to is essentially a magical mystery tour through a Muse-themed hall of fame, the musical equivalent of that bit at the beginning of Live at the Apollo where the host points out all of the celebrities seated in the crowd, a sort of Where’s Wally? of influence and inspiration and imitation. This ultimately makes for a distracting listening experience and results in an album that lacks any semblance of the cohesion that characterised their previous offerings.

This is not to say that The 2nd Law doesn’t have its moments, which come inevitably when Muse are at their most vintage. Album opener ‘Supremacy’ is a triumphant assault on the aural faculties, combining a driving guitar riff with a soaring string arrangement that could easily have sound-tracked forthcoming Bond outing Skyfall had Adele not got there first, whilst Olympic anthem and personal favourite ‘Survival’ is a worthy addition to both the Muse canon and any budding Olympians’ gym playlist. I would also count the refreshingly catchy ‘Animals’ amongst the album’s strengths, but they are ultimately too few and far between to compensate for its faults in other areas. Chris Wolstenholme’s tracks are, unfortunately, something of a misfire; though he is undoubtedly a talented musician, this does not change the fact that, vocally, Muse have been all about Matt Bellamy for nearly two decades, and the attempt to alter this formula inevitably results in a jarring interlude which could have been offset by simply spacing the two tracks out across the album. The ending, too, fails to live up to the precedent set by the strong finales of both Black Holes and Revelations and The Resistance, with the fairly lacklustre ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’ ensuring that this album ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

The entire notion of ‘experimental’ art implies a certain degree of trial and error, and part of me can’t help but think that Muse have erred with The 2nd Law. There is a fine line between homage and parody, and with The 2nd Law Muse seem to be veering ever closer towards parody of themselves and of others, with enjoyment of this album hinging very much on how we listeners choose to respond to that.

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