The 2nd Law
Helium 3, Warner
There’s a line in the film Silence Of The Lambs where Clarice Starling quotes Hannibal Lecter. “Doesn’t this seem desperately random?” That line popped into my head at the end of my first listen of the new Muse album The 2nd Law. By the third or fourth listen it became clear that Muse were trying to step out of their shadow with this latest collection of songs. Interestingly the Achilles heel of the album is that it sounds like a collection of songs, not a record.
Many varied audio potions come together for The 2nd Law. Imagine the high intent of Radiohead fused with the arena posturing of latter day U2. The pop dance of Pet Shops Boys covered by Wings in their heyday. Everything that inspires The 2nd Law has merit, but when those inspirations are burned into a misdirected psyche of entertaining but banal song writing, the bright and shiny newness of what Muse is attempting fades quickly. The ideas here are good, but the execution and total lack of cohesion throughout the album becomes irritating.
“Supremacy” opens The 2nd Law with what sounds like a James Bond theme. Think back to the keyboard driven, blockbuster songs about 007 crooned over the opening credits and you’ll get the idea. Muse take a marching drum roll, layer the triumphant vocals of Matthew Bellamy over it and then filter it through Wing’s “Live And Let Die” keyboards and up-beat explosion at the crescendo. Add big guitars and Bellamy’s high falsetto and suddenly you’re waiting for a hunky spy to walk into a circle, pause, turn, and shoot at you.
Then there’s the next song and first single “Madness”. Muse follow up their Wings style Bond epic with a throbbing electro-bass-line pop song. A sudden guitar solo, and Bellamy’s erupting into a high-pitched wail, are about the only twists and turns in “Madness”. Want the next step? Well, Muse decide to follow up Wings and dance pop with pre-Mike Patton era Faith No More. “Panic Station” sounds very close to the Faith No More jam “We Care A lot”. Muse try to disguise the familiar bass line by tossing in The Power Station and a chorus that is disturbingly close to the breakdown of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, but it’s still Faith No More.
Okay folks, deep breath. Lots more to hear.
“Survival” moves The 2nd Law into yet another direction. Bellamy’s lyrical rhythm bears a more than passing resemblance to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. Behind Bellamy, the music is that of a Broadway rock show. Imagine Rent or something along those lines. Big guitars that aren’t necessarily heavy and a choir that sings as though we’re hearing the protagonist to this epic musical unleash his backstory just after the curtain comes up. Muse have even included a section where the massive choir chants “fight”.
“Follow Me”, a tune about Bellamy’s son, is another head scratcher. It starts slow, melodic; the type of thing you’d figure a singer would croon to his offspring. I guess Muse got bored with that notion because mid-song “Follow Me” becomes a dance party club banger. It’s as if to say, “I love you son. NOW LETS DANCE”. Cue keyboard flurries and bombastic bass thanks to co-producers Nero.
The 2nd Law continues on like a foot race for people with no sense of direction. “Animals” sounds like something Muse found in Radiohead’s dumpster, “Explorers” is U2 in their Joshua Tree era as is “Big Freeze”. “Liquid State” is a straight rock jam and one of the only songs that doesn’t have an obvious basis in something else.
Muse end their album in two parts. “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”. As much as I enjoy the Cylon like vocals on part one, the song goes nowhere. Lots of scientific jargon is sampled throughout boogie dance parts glued together by distorted noise and Bellamy’s howling. Part two is a little more interesting simply because it’s darker. The piano is melancholy as are the accompanying keyboards. The keys are so dark that even the danceable beat doesn’t derail the sadness of the tune.
Another problem with The 2nd Law is Muse’s inability to inject humanity into their songs, which has haunted them before. As complex as this album may be, it still feels like it was written by a super computer that, after becoming self aware, decided on world domination via a dance record made up of as many musical touchstones as it could download. I could have lived with that if The 2nd Law sounded like anything even approaching a cohesive album. Instead, as I said before, it’s a collection of songs. Variety may be the spice of life, but there is a thin line between variation and a record that sounds like a mix tape. There's also a smugness to this record that's undeniable. While The 2nd Law does have moments; this is mostly a failed experiment from a band trying too hard to break their routine.