Muse ‘The 2nd Law’ – Review

10 Oct

‘Race! Life’s a race! I’m gonna win!’ This was the key line in Muse’s comeback single, ‘Survival’, the song that was chosen to soundtrack the London 2012 Olympic Games. It kind of threw me when I first heard it. Muse have never been ones for subtlety or understatement, that just isn’t what they’re about and that’s fine, but even by their standards this song sounded slightly ridiculous. It’s almost like a parody of a Muse song, what with the guitar histrionics, the virtuoso flourishes, the over-the-top choir and the crushing baseline. In my review of ‘The Resistance’ I stated that such is the band’s addiction to making each consecutive album bigger and more bombastic than the one before,  it would only be a matter of time before they put too much air into their balloon. ‘One day Muse will fail and rest assured it will be an epic fail’ I said. After hearing ‘Survival’, I suspected ‘The 2nd Law’ may be that epic fail.

Then came second single ‘Madness’, which turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant slice of modern pop. It was, possibly correctly, identified by Chris Martin as the best thing the band have ever done. Muse don’t typically entertain songs about feelings or romance, it’s always been there under the surface but never before have they been this honest, simple and direct. Sonically its a fabulous record with a pulsating synth bass-line and a hysterical guitar solo that is in delightful contrast to the clean lines of the other instruments. The harmonies are meticulously stacked on top of each other in the style of ELO or Queen (a very obvious reference point, but for good reason) and you could even use the adjective ‘restrained’ to describe the arrangement, which is surely a first for Muse. ‘Madness’ restored hope that the band still have something  interesting to say.

So which route do Muse go down on the album? The ‘Survival’ route of bigger is (not necessarily) better, or the stripped back, more experimental route of ‘Madness’?  While stripped back is not how I would describe any other track on this album, most songs have more in common with the experimentation of ‘Madness’ than the parodical excess of ‘Survival’. It’s not a wholly successful album but ‘The 2nd Law’ is usualy a lot of daft fun. I fail to see how anybody couldn’t love the Prince humping ‘Panic Stations’ or the incredibly earnest and indulgent ‘Follow Me’. Even the aforementioned ‘Survival’ has a loveable quality because it’s so over the top – who else would dare make something this mad?

Because Muse are clearly having fun, the listener has fun as a result. But while there is a lot to be said for how free Muse obviously felt to try out new ideas, this experimentation leads to the album’s big problem – how disjointed it feels. ‘The Resistance’ suffered from the same issues but not to the same degree. Here we have a pointless orchestral interlude in the first quarter of the album while in the final quarter Matt’s vocals don’t feature at all. In fact for the final four tracks you barely hear a peep from him (two songs are sung by the bass player and the final two are instrumentals). In fact, the final 15-20 minutes of this album are surely among the most anticlimactic in all of recorded music.

You also have the fact that a pop song sits alongside a drum n bass song, a stadium rock song comes after an orchestral song, etc, etc. All these genre experiments still sound like Muse, but none of them sit particularly comfortably alongside each other. Structural issues aside, there is no getting past the fact that some of these songs just aren’t that good. Not particularly bad, just very, very average. ‘Save Me’, ‘Liquid State’ and ‘Animals’ just sound like filler in comparison to the songs that make up the first half of the album which makes this a bumpy downhill decent.

‘The 2nd Law’ features a handful of incredible Muse songs, some of the best of their career, but their experimental bent sometimes comes off as over-indulgence, and it doesn’t always pay off as handsomely as it does on ‘Madness’.  Despite some flirtation with ‘brostep’ and r&b, their true strength lies in the high octane rock music they perfected on ‘Absolution’. Very little from that album would sound at home on ‘The 2nd Law’ which means this may be the first disapointing album in the group’s back catalouge. However, once again Muse have pushed the boat out without pushing it over the waterfall, and that in itself is pretty impressive.

6/10

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