CD Review: The 2nd Law – Muse

The 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics: All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted, and useless. New energy cannot be created and high-grade energy is being destroyed.

With this perhaps foreboding source material as its namesake (quoted in the two-part track bearing its moniker), Muse recently released their latest studio project.  Having spent a year alluding to new directions for the band – frontman Bellamy quipped on Twitter that it would be a  “christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia“, while the phrases “electronic music” and “Skrillex” were bandied about a lot – the final product was finally spied through initial releases “Survival”,”Madness” and “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, all of which were covered previously on OTM.  While the core of typical Muse remained apparent, the divide from previous release The Resistance was readily apparent.

I’ve delayed this review for some time, mainly because I usually need to warm up to a Muse album.  Certain songs grab me immediately every time, but half of the album takes adjustment and deeper contemplation before a final verdict is reached.  Having allowed this outing to soak into the DNA depicted on the album cover, let’s examine The 2nd Law track by track, and see what Muse has accomplished and whether it’s worthy of the band’s hype.

 

Supremacy:  Opening with a grungey “we’re here!” riff, “Supremacy” then descends into something reminiscent of The Matrix soundtrack and yet, it’s pretty classic Muse.  Orchestral elements build and fall, sharing the spotlight with Bellamy’s plaintive vocals and alternately competing with them.  As lyrically sparse as many Muse classics (“Shrinking Universe” comes to mind), this could have been a part of the narrative of The Resistance and perhaps serves as a bridge.  Then again, Muse has frequently commented on sociopolitical failings and notions of power and hubris.  “Greatness dies/Unsung and lost, invisible to history/Embedded spies/Brainwashing our children to be mean/You don’t have long/I am on to you/The time, it has come to destroy your supremacy.”

Madness:  Bellamy readily admits this song is about his relationship with Kate Hudson, and one wonders if she feels complimented or insulted, given lyrics like “I tried so hard to let you go/But some kind of madness is swallowing me whole.”  Despite elapsed time, I still hate the “m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mad-mad” device, which is a shame, since the song’s pretty solid despite its blatant conjuration of Freddie Mercury.  My previous assessment of this as “Queen’s dubstep years” holds here:  the song is sparse, shaded in 80s electronics and blatant hat tips to Skrillex.  The final stretch features gorgeous vocals by Bellamy and a sweeping, lush feel that stands in sharp relief to the rest of the track, elevating it from an average tune to something better, although imperfect.

Panic Station:  Connected to that Skrillex and Queen influence, “Panic Station” again illuminates one of the core concerns I have with this album:  it verges too much from “influenced by” to “blatant cribbing”.   Homage is a tricky line to walk, and while I actually love this track (it’s by far one of the strongest on this album), the lyrics and melodic lines throwback so much to Stevie Wonder classic “Superstition” that I didn’t even need to research the album to guess that musicians from Wonder’s entourage were at work here.  All that aside, I absolutely love the funk elements blended with Muse’s usual showmanship tendencies and encourage the band to play more with this sort of sound in the future.  Lyrically, it’s a cousin to “Uprising” with its mantra of channeling paranoia and fear into shirking societal constraints and seeking freedom from oppression.

Prelude:  Minor gripe with Muse in general: needlessly segregating songs into multiple tracks.  This is literally 58 seconds that we all know belongs strictly with “Survival”.  What’s the point in the separation here?  It’s as Queen as the rest of the track.

Survival:  Coming now to this Olympics tune, I again have to sigh and lament the lacklustre quality of the tune.  It works well as an anthem for athletes, sure:  it’s typical Muse while lyrically echoing every other official song.  On this album, it’s pure filler and brings the entire project down.  There’s nothing remarkable here, nothing the band hasn’t already done.  Lyrics are unmemorable in every way, aside from being cheesy.  I enjoy the operatic chorus and shredding guitar line in the back half, but all in all, this could be a Freddie Mercury karaoke night experiment.  I love Queen, but leave it to the (sadly gone) master, Matt.

Follow Me:  You knew a song was coming about Bellamy’s bouncing baby boy, didn’t you?  No artist seems capable of resisting the urge to write at least once song about progeny, and most of them are dreck.  “Follow Me” falls into that category.  The line about being left for dead and creepy implications aside, this is pure fluff that is meant to seem universal enough to be a love song, but comes off as commercial pap.  I have to concur with Allmusic’s assessment that this song verges from original electronic composition into a ready-made remix of a potential song beneath the surface.  I feel like I shouldn’t be listening to this without glowing necklaces and a hit of E.  Sadly, you know BT’s just going to get his hands on this and make it twice as long.

Animals:  Prior to “Follow Me”, this album was fairly strong, all in all.  It was reassuring to me, given my mixed reactions to the lead singles in August.  However, everything’s downhill from here on, and “Animals” is one of the worst offenders, if only because it holds so much promise.  Recycled lyrical themes to the point of boredom dilutes the expert and intricate guitar lines here.  I wish this were an instrumental track, something akin to the Santos & Johnny classic “Sleepwalk”.  It would be far more enjoyable without the distraction of the unimaginative words.

Explorers:  “Explorers” suffers from the precise opposite problem of the preceding track:  it’s lyrically masterful, painting a picture of desolation and despair amidst confrontation with truth, but musically, it’s a complete snore.  While the mood of the piece calls for some moments of softer instrumentation, this song desperately needs a romping, rocking climax to emphasize the passionate need for release from a hell of one’s own creation.  Even a downtempo yet darker composition would work – something akin to later track “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”.  This sounds far too adult contemporary for my liking and plods on far too long.

Big Freeze:  Were you already missing the heavy Queen influences and funk on the earlier tracks?  “Big Freeze” is here to revive you with its sassy riffs and dance rock undercurrent.  With an apocalyptic vibe akin to Noah screaming at God from the proverbial ark and questioning the future in store, the song recalls “Undisclosed Desires” melodically, but ultimately feels like a conjuring of electronic Bowie.  Strangely upbeat, given the lyrics, and highly enjoyable.

Save Me:  The first of two songs written and primarily performed by bassist Chris Wolstenholme about his battle with alcoholism.  Let’s preface this by stating that addiction is a common theme across many artists, and can be incredibly moving and powerful – see A Perfect Circle’s The Thirteenth Step for an entire album on the concept.  That said, Wolstenholme’s voice is too soft to trade with the usually bombastic nature of Muse’s work and as a result, it feels like the instrumentation is completely diluted here, so as not to drown him out.  Aside from the themes of powerlessness and seeking another to save you, this song just isn’t Muse.  As a b-side, this could be okay; on the album proper, it falls flat and is not stylistically in line with their work.

Liquid State:  Given that vast lyrical similarities between this second Wolstenholme-penned track and the first, I’m inclined to suggest that one should have been chosen and the other discarded.  This album already suffers from dilution via repetition and this pair of tracks is certainly not helping matters.  This latter track is the stronger one, without question, and also more in line with Muse’s sound.  I would probably enjoy this track more if performed by Bellamy; again, Wolstenholme’s voice is too soft to trade with the rough melodies and epic sound of the band.  Lyrics like “Kick me when I’m down/Feed me poison, fill me till I drown/Wake me up before I get pushed out and fall into the night” beg for belted power vocals.  These last two tracks, funnily enough, feel like Maynard James Keenan covering Muse.

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable:  My initial review pretty much nailed my feelings on this, so I’ll simply repeat that here.  The symphonic elements blend back in, but the dubstep maintains control, for the most part.  A ‘reporter’ reciting the second law of thermodynamics is met with robotic “unsustainable” call and response placement. I know this is part one of a two-track combo on the album, but it’s annoying as all hell.  It comes off overly pretentious with the soundbites and the dubstep isn’t inspired by the work of Skrillex; it sounds exactly like Skrillex.

The 2nd Law: Isolated System:  The mirrored reflection and companion to “Unsustainable” and its message of greed destroying our species, “Isolated System” blends radio and television transmissions into a sonic landscape that ultimately stresses that isolation begets wasted energy or entropy.  There is loss of heat, of passion and ability to create.  We are destroyed.  It’s a heavy message, but is perhaps diluted by the dance remix feel of the track.  As experimental as much of Muse’s back catalogue, it’s a worthwhile track but perhaps not one to spin on a frequent basis.  Regardless, as a concluding track, it’s chilling and in keeping with the overarching themes of the album.

Final Comments:

By the band’s own admission, The 2nd Law is “radically different”, “draws a line” between their past career and the future, and incorporates electronic elements and brass. While core elements of the Muse sound are still here – including their tendencies towards exploration and experimentation – this album, more than others, strides over the line into copycatting in enough places to be worrisome.  Sonically, the album feels unfocused and cobbled together, like a series of experiments as opposed to one grand exploration.  While both of the funk-based tracks are strong, they feel so out of place next to the softer and more operatic numbers.  It’s almost as if the band wasn’t fully able to commit to any one style of composition and the album suffers for it.

Related to this, the message of the album also feels somewhat incoherent and garbled, and I blame part of this on the inclusion of Wolstenholme’s compositions.  These tracks are far more personal in nature than the sweeping notions of evolution, exploration and survival of the species, and don’t quite work.  “Madness”, while enjoyable once it grows on you, also feels sorely out of place with the back half of the album.  The 2nd Law ultimately comes off as half a concept album rammed onto a more general piece of work and again, the overall effect is hindered by this.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here:  when a band hits upon huge success, as Muse did with The Resistance, there is often a temptation to try and recreate that magic formula.  Often, industry types interfere, ironically tainting their product with fallacy and lousy suggestions.  Given the influx of trendy material on this album, coupled with a continued and perhaps expanded Queen influence on this outing, I feel like The 2nd Law speaks to this sort of interference at work.  Even bands tend to want to stay on top and continue to produce what “works”.  The trouble is, when a band loses the artistic integrity to simply do what feels right on the instinctual level, it often loses what has evoked fanbase loyalty.

When this album is good, it’s brilliant.  When it phones it in on the coattails of past successes – for Muse or other artists – it is a huge letdown.  I’d like to see the next outing coherently explore more elements of funk within the sweeping sounds Muse has come to be known for, perhaps without a concept or message driving the work.  Perhaps more unrestrained time in the sonic sandbox will serve the band well.  For now, we are left with a patchy album that speaks more to the band’s future potential than anything else.

Highlights:  Supremacy; Madness; Panic Station; Big Freeze
Lowlights:  Follow Me; Animals; Explorers; Save Me

Final Grade:  B

Regardless of their current output, Muse is amazing live and on tour; check out their official site for details and dates.

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