Watch this. Is it good? I don’t know anymore.
The 2nd Law, the latest album from the stupefyingly talented Muse, is a complicated piece of work. But I feel it can be accurately summarised by the video above and the question I asked. With most records, it’s quite easy to figure out which side of the Good/Bad line they fall on. What we critics spend most of our time doing is arguing about why an album is good or bad, just how good or bad an album is, and whether or not Casey will think it’s cool. But The 2nd Law isn’t that simple; it doesn’t immediately place itself in the good camp or the bad camp, so we’re going to have to do a little digging.
There are three aspects to this album that I am going to focus on, and for the sake of forcing overused allusions on my willing readers, I am going to name them The Good (moments of incredible musicianship and talent), The Bad (moments in which Muse inexplicably tries to sound like any band other than Muse), and The Confusing (their controversial use of electronics, and the only reason most of you are reading this). I will start each section with a dissection of ‘Madness,’ because I think it is a perfect combination of what this album has to offer – the good and the bad (and the confusing…sorry) – before going on to look at the rest of the album.
There is lots to love in this album, but only if you hurl your expectations out the window. If you were hoping to see the typical apocalyptic sounds interwoven with poppy groove machines and raging, funky breakdowns, you will be (mostly) disappointed. But as a Muse fan, I would like to think that you are more open minded than that; I would like to think that after so many great albums, you are ready to see where the British trio heads next. Such preparedness will hold you in good stead, because gone are the apocalyptic anthems (with one or two exceptions that sound far closer to The Uprising than anything off of Absolution) and subdued are the breakdowns, all having been replaced with some genuinely intriguing experimentation with yet unexplored genres and styles – but don’t worry, there’s still a huge helping of pop for those of you that only know Muse as the band from Twilight.
So let’s look at this. What is good about ‘Madness?’ It’s groovy and melodic in equal portions, and you will find yourself humming it days later. You can’t not sing along to it, even if his vocals at the end are far beyond the capabilities of most mere mortals. It’s a fun song (particularly endearing are the little bluesy hums after the verses), but still touching, even if the lyrics are a little on the ‘80s pop side of things. Also, guitar solo. Sweet motherfucking guitar solo. Why is Bellamy so damned good at everything? Couldn’t he leave just a little bit of talent for other people? Yeah, it’s a pretty good song, I guess. If you like super catchy songs with abnormally powerful vocals, fun harmonized backups, and awesome guitar solos. For the record, I do.
And ‘Madness’ is not alone in the toe-tapping and airguitaring departments. ‘Supremacy’ starts with a typically foreboding riff, and gives way to James Bond inspired progressions. Bellamy’s distorted vocals, the trumpets, the outro jam, and the overall grandiose feel of the track bring to mind everything I loved about Black Holes and Revelations. It’s a great track, but a misleading opener, because the rest of the album will staunchly refuse to sound anything like it.
Track six, ‘Animals,’ shows off the softer – but no less impressive – side of Bellamy’s guitar work. His ongoing solo is smooth and swaggering, and the outro is a fantastic stylistic contrast to the rest of the song, showing that Muse still know how to effectively rock. It’s not a song that I anticipate listening to much in the future, but it is certainly a respectable song that few other bands could pull off.
One of the more surprising moves made in The 2nd Law is the inclusion of bassist Christopher Wolstenholme on lead vocals for two songs. Even more surprising is that they are pretty good. Wolstenholme puts out a strong showing on ‘Save Me.’ He offers admittedly less dynamic vocals than Bellamy, but the driving piano parts, the spacious drumming, and the simple but pretty guitar parts bring it all together to become something unique. It would have been much more interesting had Bellamy provided some backup vocals but I suppose it would have taken the spotlight away from Chris.
Wolstenholme’s second shot at being the frontman is ‘Liquid State,’ a song that will no doubt inspire many the fist pump at live shows. The chugging guitar line is immediately reminiscent of The Resistance, and to that end, it does almost nothing for me. The guitar line strikes me as an attempt to generate energy, but it misses the intensity of songs like ‘Assassin,’ and ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’ The chorus is better, providing some interesting layers and a pretty badass bass part (especially for a guy who is singing simultaneously), but overall this song strikes me as filler.
And thus concludes my list of songs that are clearly good. That isn’t to say that the songs in the following sections don’t have good parts (in fact, almost all of them do), but they are dominated by negative aspects, so they don’t make the cut. Sorry ‘Panic Station,’ I really like you…sometimes.
So back to ‘Madness.’ While it is definitely catchy and groovy in all of the best ways possible, it has a glaring issue that I can’t overlook. The end is a massive rip off of U2. It is amazingly powerful, and it gives me chills in the live version, but hot damn is it U2. The guitar is straight up The Edge, and the vocals could only be more Bono if they were begging you to save Africa. Now, I have no problem with Muse drawing influence from U2, but that ending borders on obscene. It is less a tribute and more a callous lack of creativity. I can forgive it here, because it fits the otherwise U2-less song quite well, but this tendency towards borrowing from other artists is a very real problem for this album.
I mentioned earlier that I like ‘Panic Station.’ This is true. I think it is a fun and unusual song that shows a side of Muse we have never seen before. The only problem is that it’s a Queen song. If you heard the beginning of this song and didn’t immediately think of ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ you are a dirty, filthy liar. And I can hear the fanboys already, each one screeching that it is a homage, and maybe you’re right, but if that is the case, then it is incredibly poorly done. The rhythm is painfully similar and based around an almost identical riff, complete with all the same accents. Also, the backup vocals are, shall we say, royal. In a remarkably strange turn of events, the remainder of the song plays out like a Bee Gees song. But note the difference here, the chorus doesn’t sound like they are unceremoniously stealing from them, it just has the same tone and feel. In contrast, the beginning of the song does not have a sense of nostalgic familiarity; it sounds like a rip off.
‘Survival’ also draws heavily from the Queen well. The frolicking piano, the batshit insane backup vocals, everything. Even the burst into a ripping guitar solo is straight Queen. As a point of reference for any non-believers, I will offer ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ but in this case it is a general use of sound and technique rather than a straightforward stealing of a riff. And as such, I am willing to concede that this may very well fall into tribute territory. But the real problem for ‘Survival’ isn’t the obvious similarity to Queen, it’s that unlike ‘Panic Station,’ it’s just not that good a song. It lacks the dynamism of a song like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ so it falls somewhere between quirky and awkward. I like Queen and I like Muse, and had you told me they were going to have some kind of musical lovechild I would have been very interested, but this song doesn’t sound like a joining of all that is good about each band – it sounds like Muse trying to be Queen, and failing.
I can only assume that ‘Explorers’ is Muse just saying “fuck it, we aren’t even trying anymore.” If you have ignored every other video so far, please watch these two. The first twenty-five seconds of each should do it: ‘Explorers’ and ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’ The chord progression is pretty bad, but that vocal line at 0:17 and 0:19 respectively is hard to stomach. Admittedly, the songs are pretty different after that. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ proceeds to rocket off into all kinds of crazy territory while ‘Explorers’ goes on to (much more subtly) steal from Radiohead. But with all of Muse’s borrowing so far, I suppose there should be No Surprises there…
‘Big Freeze’ is in large part a Queen song. Just kidding! It’s U2 again. I can’t stand U2, so I refuse to wade through their thirty years of music to find the exact song this reminds me of (here is ‘Where The Streets Have No Name,’ which certainly sums up the tone). I must admit that this only lasts until the chorus, when it becomes a pretty good Muse song. It’s got a strong rhythmic groove and soaring vocals – familiar territory for the three-piece – but for me, it is ultimately overshadowed by Bellamy’s constant attempts to sound like The Edge. And again, I have no problem with Bellamy experimenting with a similar sound and technique to The Edge (I think he did so brilliantly in ‘Map of the Problematique’), but that’s not what this sounds like. It lacks the experimentation part and falls firmly into the rip-off category.
And now, the question that seems to be dominating the conversations about this album. Go to any YouTube comment section regarding The 2nd Law and you will find a war going on between people who think the increased use of electronics on this album is innovative and those that think it is an attempt to cash in on the success of Skrillex (you might have to wade through a few fanboys yelling “OMG BEST SONG” before you find it, but the war is most certainly there). With the success of artists such as Skrillex (that was supremely difficult to write), electronics have fans of rock music on the defensive. I get that, but let’s not overreact. There is room in music for electronics, it is just a matter of how they are used. Remember this? That was pretty great right? So let’s just calm down and take a look at what we have here.
What likely struck out at your ears upon first hearing ‘Madness’ was the bass line. It is, without a doubt, kind of gimmicky – I’ll give you that naysayers. Say your nays freely. But, remember, that it isn’t a computer playing. It’s Christopher Wolstenholme, and I am actually exceedingly impressed with his ability to stay in time with a fast and unnatural hand motion. Watch the video again, it’s amazing. He isn’t just hitting a button on his MacBook and letting a sample do the work for him, he is hammering on a Kaoss pad. True, it is somewhat closer to playing Rock Band than masterfully handling a bass, but it is still pretty cool. Plus, it works. That silly bass line gives the song an element of fun and groove that prevent it from just being a tired ballad. As far as I’m concerned, I like it. But that’s not to say that I like the electronics used elsewhere on the album.
‘Follow Me’ is arguably the most controversial song on the album because of its borrowing from the realm of dubstep (a cruel and twisted dystopian universe in which all music has been replaced by the sounds of dial-up Internet connections and vigorous but predictable wubbing). However, and here is where I start to look at myself in the mirror and wonder what I have become, it’s actually a pretty good song. The dubbing…stepping…whatever it is you kids call it, is actually done tastefully, and it gives it a kind of edge. No really, hear me out. The quarter note wubs are forceful, and I would argue, possibly more forceful than if it had just been a bass playing. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. I have been before, once or twice, but it certainly seems to me that the dubstep elements don’t hurt this song, and I’m not sure I have ever said that about an actual dubstep song before. Anyway, the song has bigger problems to deal with – the melody is a tad boring for what Muse is capable of, and the outro is once again a blatant U2 rip off. Stop it, Muse. Just stop it.
Without a doubt, the strangest tracks on the album are the two mostly instrumental closers. Part 1, ‘The 2nd Law – Unsustainable,’ begins with frantic strings and powerful blasts of choir vocals and horns that sound like they are straight out of The Matrix. Soon after, a voiceover arrives discussing the second law of thermodynamics and applying it to what I assume is the economic sphere. And then, at 1:29, it turns into a dubstep song. No, not a Muse song with dubstep influences, not even a Queen or a U2 song with some heavy wubbing, but a full blown dubstravaganza. Thirty seconds later, drums, strings, choir and Bellamy’s voice enter, and just when you thought there might be some potential there, it just hits rewind. The Matrixey tune from the start begins again, the voiceover returns, and just like that we are back to dubstep. I wish they would just dubstop……okay yeah, that one was pretty bad. Anyway, it is as boring as every other dubstep song, replacing all of the brilliant musicianship and instrument-based talent with the sounds of Transformer-porn.
Part 2, ‘The 2nd Law – Isolated System,’ is equally frustrating. It is a soft and sombre tune that conjures images of sitting by a window, staring out into the rain. A bass and drum combo fit for a night of clubbing enter and are soon followed by strings and more voiceovers about economic disaster and entropy. The voices fade away and we are returned to a rainy night club for another two and a half minutes, and then everything just melts away. While the song itself isn’t all that bad (as far as ambient electronic music goes, it’s quite endearing), it is a noticeably unsatisfying ending to an incredibly shaky album.
Ultimately, it’s not the use of electronics and dubstep that bother me about this album. With the exception of ‘Unsustainable,’ I find the wubs and drops tasteful. I certainly wouldn’t call it innovative, it just sounds like they remixed their own songs, but I wouldn’t call it problematic either. As for the use of electronics in general, that’s nothing new for Muse. They have used electronics quite heavily on all of their recent albums, and they have always done so to good effect. For the most part, I think that is still the case on The 2nd Law.
What really bothers me about this album is the constant borrowing from Queen and U2. This is the sixth album from Muse; they have already gone through the “finding yourself” phase of things. When they started, they sounded like Radiohead. Everyone (except the band) saw this, but as they experimented and progressed as a band, they found their own unique sound. I have no issue at all with them continuing to experiment and develop new sounds to add to their repertoire, but there is absolutely no reason at all for them to do so by simply trying to sound like another band. You want crazy operatic backup vocals? Fine. You want jaunty piano riffs? Also fine. Just don’t do them at the same time, and certainly not with finger snaps in the background. I mean, it’s not like they are borrowing from underground acts here, they are stealing from two of the most successful musical acts of all time – and ones from their own part of the world no less (yes U2 are from Ireland, not England, but the two countries aren’t exactly far apart). The result is that the whole album sounds like awkward covers. But with that said, there are some decent tracks on The 2nd Law, and if they can ramp down the U2 and make the Queen-isms more subtle, they could put out a genuinely innovative album in the near future. Here’s hoping.
GRADE: Queen’s worst album to date.
Banner image received from www.fanpop.com
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