For the past seven years, my musical universe has been largely dominated by one band: Muse. If you know me at all, you’re probably aware of this. The album artwork from Absolution is emblazoned in ink on my foot, I’ve sat hunched over a computer at three a.m. while waiting for tickets to go on sale, and I have flown and driven literally thousands of miles for them.
But when it comes to current Muse, I downgrade from “diehard fan” to “fan slightly embarrassed by her favorite band going off the deep end.” Origin of Symmetry and Absolution are downright masterful, but while I was a fan of The Resistance, Muse’s 2009 album, when it was first released, as time went on, the less I liked it. Now, I haven’t listened to a track of that album in months.
Because of that decline, I was wary and downright pessimistic about their newest effort, The 2nd Law. I decided that until I could hear the album in a full context, I’d avoid any material. No singles, no live recordings, no thirty second preview snippets. Nada. I wanted to judge the album as a whole, not from bits and pieces released in the preceding months. Plus, the opinions of my fellow vintage Muse purists were vitriolic in their hatred of two early tracks, “Unsustainable” and “Survival.”
Surprisingly, my willpower prevailed and, when a full leak in passably high quality surfaced yesterday, my virgin ears dove into The 2nd Law. Now I’ve got to hearken back to my university music critic days, and delineate just which parts of Law are good…and which should be doused in gasoline and set on fire.
- “Supremacy” – Move over, Adele. Why is this not the newest James Bond theme song?! The opening guitar riff is raw, sexy, and tailor-made to back Daniel Craig dispatching some sleazy hitman while sporting a smirk. It’s ridiculous and overblown…in all the right ways. One other positive attribute to this song: welcome back, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto! Nice to see you can still wail those high notes. All in all, an awesome opening track that worked to (slightly) allay my fears. Predictable, too, that it took exactly 1:32 before being brainwashed by authority got brought up.
- “Madness” – I prefer it when Muse stick to their rock roots, instead of trying to mix in other genres. The slinky, smooth “wub wub” background of “Madness” isn’t too bad, though, and it does fit well with the breathy, intimate tone Bellamy affects on the track. But the track doesn’t really seem to go anywhere…until about three minutes in, when we’re treated to a nice – if uninspired – guitar solo and then the next chorus just rips open from out of nowhere. Seriously, where did the soaring vocals come from!? A brilliant ninety seconds…and then tailed by another boring “m-m-m-m-madness” closer.
- “Panic Station” – I want the entirety of The 2nd Law to be “Panic Station.” Christ, this track is fantastic. Easily, it’s the best thing Muse has done in years. It’s two parts Franz Ferdinand groove and one part Oingo Boingo ‘80s trumpets. On paper, that funky combination looks awful, but thank god Bellamy was crazy enough to try it, because it is nothing short of brilliant. Completely impossible to resist dancing to it. This is the dance track that “Supermassive Black Hole” wished it could be. I cannot wait to groove to this live. “We’ve arrived at panic station,” says Bellamy. I never want to leave.
- “Prelude” – A waste of a minute. Completely pointless. I hate when Muse incorporates an orchestra for no other reason than to say, “Look, we’ve got an orchestra! Pushing the boundaries of music!” No. Unnecessary. And thus begins the dreaded “center doldrums” of the album. Wear a helmet, it’s gonna get ugly.
- “Survival” – Thank god I didn’t listen to this track when it was first released for the Olympics, because I would’ve ripped my ears off. The lyrics are truly, truly abysmal, some of the worst Bellamy’s ever written. “Life’s a race, and I’m gonna win…yes, I’m gonna win, and I’ll let the fuse, and I’ll never lose”…seriously?! Cheesy and generic and the complete opposite of witty. The backing chants of “Sur-vive! Sur-vive! Fight! Fight! Win! Win!” don’t help either. Even a decent – but again, uninspired; see a theme? – guitar solo doesn’t help things out. Where’s the gasoline? Kill it. Kill it with fire.
- “Follow Me” – Compared to “Survival,” this sounds like a masterpiece…but it’s not that great either. The first bit is quite boring, but once the synths kick in after about a minute, the track morphs into a sleek pop song. It’s the most dubstep-esque of the album thus far (and for that, I’m thankful), but if Muse wanted to break the mold by fusing dubstep and rock, they haven’t come up with anything earth-shattering. It’s listenable and certainly not awful, but it’s nothing special. I’ll wait to see it live before passing full judgement, though.
- “Animals” – Ah, we’ve risen above the mediocrity for a bit! Along with “Panic Station,” this is the definite standout of the album. The guitar line has an awesome Spanish vibe to it (and the solo isn’t half-bad either!), and the bassline alone is better than half of The Resistance. Lyrics, again, are the low point. It’s basically “Uprising 2.0,” which is no compliment. The disappointment about this track is that it builds and builds and builds…and then fizzles. There’s no payoff.
- “Explorers” – Nope, back into mediocrity. Every time I got my hopes up while listening to this album, the house of cards came crashing down. Look, Muse. We get it. You like singing about souls and the “new unknown” and setting yourselves free. But you’ve beat the dead horse to a bloody pulp. There’s also a weird “save the planet” vibe to this that is utterly out of place. And oh my god, is this song long. It. Never. Ends. And it’s totally safe. There’s not a single interesting aspect to it. It just rambles along until finally, blessedly, it’s over.
- “Big Freeze” – Sorry, did I download a U2 album by mistake? There’s nothing raw about this track; it’s a slick, arena-ready rock anthem with vocals that just beg to be belted out, perhaps the first on the album. Again, nothing new and exciting, but it’s a fairly respectable track…even if Bellamy’s channeling Bono like his life depends on it. Live, I could see this track working magic, though.
- “Save Me” – Look, another song that goes absolutely nowhere in five minutes! This is bassist Chris Wolstenholme’s first foray into taking the lead vocals, and while it’s a nice change from Bellamy’s trilling falsetto, his voice just isn’t built to carry a song by itself. I never thought I’d say that I’d like less of Chris…but when it comes to vocals, that’s exactly the case.
- “Liquid State” – Another track with Wolstenholme lead vocals. Thankfully, this one’s much better than “Save Me,” as it actually seems to go somewhere. As it turns out, Wolstenholme voice works well in lead position, so long as he’s not crooning. There’s a punk vibe, which Muse rarely ever showcase, to the guitar line, and while the chorus is as processed as they come, the rest of the song is nice ‘n’ raw. It ends totally abruptly though.
- “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” – There’s that orchestra again. And just when you think this is the second coming of “Exogenesis,” the track rips into the dubstep. I wanted to hate this track. I should’ve hated this track. It’s the most un-Muse-like Muse song ever. There’re no lyrics to speak of (…maybe that’s a pro, though), and the guitar part (I honestly can’t even tell if it’s a guitar or not) just screeches. And yet, I kinda like it, at least for a dubstep track.
- “The 2nd Law: Isolated System” – An opening piano line…dare I hope for some tinges of vintage Muse?! Nope, there are the synths. This track would be loads better if the annoying voices reading out fake news headlines over the instrumentals were cut out. (Actually, that’s a running theme in this album. Cut out the words. Instantly better!) Overall, though, this is actually quite a pretty track. Surprisingly, the electronic and orchestral parts work together quite well, but yet again, there’s no climax. It just…ends. Where was the epic finish?!
Overall: The first three tracks, “Panic Station” particularly, and “Animals” are pretty brilliant. The last two tracks are unexpectedly successful. But the rest? They toe the line between dull and horrendous. Still, I was expecting a complete trainwreck, and against all odds, Muse did avoid that. It’s no Absolution or even Black Holes and Revelations, but it’s a good deal better than The Resistance. Now, seriously. When do I get “Panic Station” live?