Muse - 'The 2nd Law' (UK Release: 1 Oct '12) // Words: Rajan Lakhani
The first taster I had of Muse’s sixth album 'The 2nd Law' was the official song for the Olympics and lead single 'Survival'. As a big fan of Muse, I was really disappointed. It resembled everything the band’s detractors accuse them of: overblown, absurd and derivative. You could make this accusation about a lot of their output but what made it Exhibit A in the worst of Muse’s excesses was a lack of a redeeming hook or melody. Muse had ‘jumped the shark’, crossing over the line between genius and preposterous.
I thought perhaps it might work better in the context of the album but it doesn’t help much. 'Survival' remains both aimless and overwrought, features which are bad enough in their own right but together make for an appalling combination. The lead singer of their musical forebearers, Freddie Mercury, was rather more successful with his official song for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and Queen’s influence is more overt on 'The 2nd Law' than any of their previous records. The vocal melody of 'Explorer' is taken from 'Don’t Stop Me Now' while Queen’s signature backing vocals appear frequently through the record.
'Madness', the follow-up single from the record, is far better than 'Survival', sounding like Queen re-interpreting George Michael’s 'Faith'. It’s an exquisite, seductive pop song and it’s no wonder it’s the track being used to advertise the album. The less successful 'Panic Station' follows,Muse turning their hand to funk-punk with the single charts clearly in mind. If you’re being kind, you could say it echoes Bowie’s 'Lodger' album but a more appropriate comparison would be a Franz Ferdinand b-side.
The 2nd half of the album contains the strongest run of songs with 'Animals', 'Explorer' and 'Big Freeze'. The latter recalls another great arena-rock band, U2, in their imperial 'Achtung Baby' era, while 'Animals' has a thrilling finish, with the song ending with what sounds like a riot but is actually a recording from the trading floor on 'Wall St', neatly making a political point about greed. But even these tracks find Muse retreading old ground. 'Explorer' not only rips off Queen but resembles a re-write of 'Invincible', while 'Animals' has many similarities with 'Megalomania'.
A lot of the press in the lead-up to the release of the album has focused on the band’s embrace of dubstep. Regrettably, it isn’t the dubstep of James Blake or Burial but instead the migraine-inducing bro-step of Skrillex. Although it initially jolts with the classical flourishes of the James Bond-esque opening track 'Supremacy', it is largely well integrated into the songs, providing a new dimension to Muse’s sound.
However, this works less successfully on 'Follow Me', which is about Matt Bellamy’s recently born son. The ear-splitting, squelching bass only serves to undermine the emotional impact of his lyrics "I will keep you safe, I will protect you, I won't let them harm you". Bassist Chris Wolstenholme contributes two songs to the record, taking lead vocals on both. While his more traditional rock vocals initially provide a nice counterpoint to Bellamy’s histrionic falsetto, the songs are largely forgettable. 'Save Me' perilously sounds like post-1995 Oasis, while 'Liquid State' is better, but is a little Muse-by-numbers.
The band have consistently delivered terrific final tracks to albums, which leave the listener in awe such as 'Knights Of Cydonia' and I was hoping for something similar to at least finish the record on a high. While 'Isolated System' is an accomplished track, it’s disappointingly not in the league of its predecessors as an album closer.
'The 2nd Law' is Muse’s worst album to date. It’s a hyperactive, mess of a record which tries to throw as much at the listener as possible in the hope that something will stick. It seems having scaled the heights of their ambitions with 'Black Holes & Revelations', an album that married Muse’s pretensions with a pop sensibility, they feel they must keep delivering records more bombastic than the last. It leads to a creeping sense of too much self-satisfaction or even ‘smugness’, an attitude that says ‘we can throw anything at our listeners and they’ll come round’ - aided by the band self-producing their recent records.
This, to borrow a song title from the album, is surely ‘unsustainable’ and Matt Bellamy has suggested a more stripped-down effort for their next record. But then again, he suggested 'The 2nd Law' would be "Christian gangsta-rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia" so where they go from here is anyone’s guess.
Download 'Madness' for free via Warner Bros Records above. 'The 2nd Law' is available to purchase from amazon.co.uk. Find more info at muse.mu.