I pity those of you who don’t ‘get’ Muse. Yeah, you with your arched eyebrows, staring at your monitor with a look of disdain, fully prepared to fire up DiS for some hilarious destruction of a band too big not to epic fail. If you want that, this here internet is full of it. Fill your boots. Move along. You'll be quite content being dismissive and distant a few clicks from here. And, yes, I mean it, I pity you.
I often have to say: ‘yeah, I’ve always been a Muse fan, I reviewed their demo in my first fanzine.’ Quickly followed by 'quit gawpin’ at me like that. I’ve seen and heard it all before, bucko: Muse are dreadful, I am an idiot, and not a Real Critic, because Real Critics fawn over Atlas Sound albums. Real Critics know exactly which Animal Collective b-side they played in their second set at ATP, and that it was some super-clever in joke...' HAHAHAHAH!
You and your petty disdain, it’s nothing new. Been there, done that, gotten mustard on the t-shirt. Yet, when I say how inspiring it has been for me, watching Muse's rise from being some little
Radiohead-aping band hated dismissed by the British media to headlining Wembley Stadium, the response is a mixture of shock and awe. A sort of ‘oh, alright, you’re one of those strange people!’. Folks seem to forget that Muse were not always one of the biggest bands in the world. When I point out that their debut album came out around the same time I had White Pony on repeat, in the shadow of Mansun’s Six and the rise of Slipknot, you hear that Scooby Doo wuhhh as it sets in that the foundations for my love (and several million other people’s) for this band comes from a genuine place. People actually like them. Some even love them and own t-shirts and vinyl and stuff. Seriously, for me, watching them at Exeter Cavern with Cay (remember them... anyone?) and months later with Soulwax and JJ72 at The Fleece & Firkin in Bristol, made my legs wobble. I get goosebumps just thinking about their headline set in a thunderstorm at Reading. Believe me, this is not some flippant smirk-ridden trolling.
‘Oh, but the reviewer, he doth protest, too much...’
I only add this caveat because approaching a Muse album as a fan is far more daunting than approaching it as a critic. As a critic you can play it a couple of times and write the same old Queen-strewn 2.4 or 5/5 review that goes through the motions of what you expected before hitting play. You were right again, pat yourself on the bum... Of course, as an aging rock critic, perhaps writing 600 words for a metal publication, you could add in some post-Nirvana, post-Twilight, beer-burp theories and perhaps sling in various references to Fu Manchu going electro-prog-disco-glamrock-robotrock-stomp. It must be such a joy to get paid £25 to pen a piece like that about one of the biggest bands in the world before the album has spun from the speakers for the third time. Aside from the 'professional critics' (everyone is one now, right?), there are those of you who merely partake in the same worn-out ‘internet debates’ which amount to little more than ‘I don’t like Muse, but I’m going to listen to a stream of their new song/album and share my opinion about it’.
That’s your prerogative.
The only problem is, part of the magic of Muse is the way they straddle the spectacular with the sincere. That both ends of the spectrum are met with joyful tears and snarky sneers is little more than the fact that one man's mind-blowing is another's mind-numbing tedium, etc, etc. My crackpot theory is that Muse themselves, as well as a 'rock band' concept, suffer from the same internalized-conflict that afflicts teen soaps in an era of 'reality' tv. What is real? Should I take this seriously? Why am I caught up in this? Where can I get those shoes? Saying Muse are A Serious Band, is sorta like someone suddenly telling 7-year-olds that WWF (or whatever they call it these days) is actually some scripted form of entertainment. Not that most 7-year-olds aren’t slightly aware that it isn’t quite really Real, but forgetting this or perhaps not believing the naysayers is part of the experience.
It’s the same
misapprehension denial that I was sure most of my Motley Crue and Guns 'N Roses loving friends were under when I was 12. Why on earth were they taking this beyond ridiculous music so seriously? It was just a bit of fun. A form of ‘far out’ pop music, but by people who could play and occasionally, in interviews and that, mention some smart or creative people from history. Or quote Hunter S. Thompson. It was just melodies and nonsense lyrics about ridiculous concepts, by Peter Pan types who refused to grow up and just wanted insta-fixes to their deeply troubled souls.
So, the new Muse album... at the time of writing, I’m nine and a half listens in and starting to feel like the far off coming into focus. Finding your feet within Muse’s wind-tunnel of ridiculousness is never easy, but when the circus tricks stop distracting you, what you find is a band who’ve reached a new point of playfulness. Don’t go thinking this is Muse’s Love, Angel, Music, Baby, filled with silly-silliness (think they blew that shark out of the water with ‘Knights of Cydonia’). They say Justice were a big inspiration for The 2nd Law, but at times it seems they might mean the slightly odd prog-nightmare that was the second Justice album. Playfulness is not to be confused with indulgence, but bloody hell do they want indulge you! In fact, this might be the first time Muse as a band can finally begin to make sense of who they are, but rather than dropping the curtain, they simply open a door to whole other weird and wonderful WTF world. The clue-inside-a-clue is there, right in the album's opening line, “wake to see, your true emancipation is a fantasy”, and so it begins...
At first I was afraid, I was petrified... It felt like a meringue nest mess with guitars protruding from the giddy gloop of genres. Then I remembered I was approaching it all wrong. I felt like an idiot who was trying to take Dylan’s lyrics literally. I could have been one of those guys, stood there, unimpressed, with my arms folded, at a GirlTalk DJ set in 2005... in fact, I’d love to hear GirlTalk remix this entire freakin’ freak show...
Pretty much every song on The 2nd Law sounds like a concept track, based around re-imagining a genre. This is less an album, and more like a mixtape filled with mini meditations of musical movements. It’s like they had some rapid-fire brainstormed ideas for the concept of the album, and threw it all in there for Generation: I Like a Bit of Everything, I Do. There’s the prog-lounge ‘Animals’ which goes a bit Jeff Beck. The haha-we-trolled-everyone-on-the-internet-LOLZ ‘Unsustainable’ with its deliriously hideous Skrillex + strings (Stringexx?). ‘Madness’ is a Gaga muh-muh-ma-ing sci-fi re-write of Limp Bizkit/George Michael’s ‘Faith’. There’s the ‘Can’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ Belgian-boyband-funk of ‘Panic Station’, which goes a bit Darkness prancing around on a lit-up disco-floor to Abba (you can imagine Russell Brand walking onstage to this tune looking all presidential and cod-serious). Meanwhile, ‘Save Me’ sounds exactly like one of those songs when the other band members who’ve never really sung before, step in and sing a number... actually, it’s quite good. ‘Liquid State’ on the other-hand sounds exactly like Three Colours Red/every band playing in Camden in the post Brit-rock years, just before the triple whammy of XTRMNTR, Kid A and The Cooper Temple Clause’s debut album came along and gave the British Music Scene a ruddy hard kick in the derriere.
In fact, I could have just paraphrased Matt Bellamy’s tweet, which for all its tongue-in-cheek, it seems like the joker may have had the last laugh (or at least laughed at his own joke) (which weirdly, is the only sort of in-joke you get with a band like Muse, because really it's all out there, much like The Truth...) (...and my inner conspiracy theorist is wondering whether this was even meant to be an actual album or if it's just Matt Bellamy unleashing an army against himself, but that it's an mob that slowly realises he's one of them, and eventually makes him their leader...)
Ok, will start on christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, some ambient rebellious dubstep and face melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia.— Matt Bellamy (@MattBellamy) November 20, 2011
The most disappointing thing about this sixth Muse longplayer isn’t the lack of gangsta rap, it’s that the best track on it - a swirling piece of Danny Elfman/Tim Burton inspired post-dubstep with Chris Morris-esque samples - ‘Isolated System’ is buried at the end of a record that knows that it really wants The Haters to hate it (Hate this and I’ll Love You... anyone?). This is Muse not so much defying the boundaries of all the music that has come before it, they are simply playing hard to 'get' and pushing the rest of you away. It's a marvellous misdirection, and I'm perched here, ready for the big reveal... Meanwhile, I pity you, as you take those perplexed steps back. Run for them-there hills. Matt, Dom and Chris, they don’t need you: they have their jetpacks and stadium tours and kids and A-list wives. They didn’t need to make this album. You didn’t need to hear it, or spend your time slagging it off to people who would nod in agreement with you. The curious ('former fans') amongst you may have attempted to find some meaning in the muh-muh-madness of musicals and metallic womping that hit YouTube, and then joined the cussing chorus. Know this, if you got upset about them ‘going dubstep’ you were trolled. They’re maniacal bastards. The joke was a joke within a joke within a joke... Why so serious?
Realise this - in the same way you know that it’s okay that someone who’s now in love can sing the saddest of heart-ripped ballads or that some rich 40-something can still sing ranty songs that are anti-capitalist in nature, even if they have grown out of that crusty CND phase - Muse are still not Radiohead. They don’t do glum or mildly gloomy, they do the ground just fell out beneath you and you’re spiralling into a blackhole. They don’t do knowingly borrowing a few cool influences to make music for estate agents, they do let’s sling it all in, make it ten times better than the sum of its parts and stick some fireworks on top!
Conspiracy theory #451: The entire album is just a piece of market research. Each track is a multiple choice menu option for where Muse should proceed with their career next. Maybe ten genre-concept albums already exist and will be released each week until Christmas.
Muse are not - I repeat NOT - an all or nothin’ band. You don’t need to 'appreciate' every single moment of it. A fine art study, this is not. You don’t need to buy in to their every single whim, and that a-bit-of-something-for-everyone troll-rock collage is part of the reason why they’ve taken over the arenas of the rock-loving western world. They are contrarians (is it entertainment? Is it art? Is both possible, especially when you hire in classical music composer...!? Is asking the right question more important than any answer?). You didn’t and still don't need to buy in to their love of the mystical or treat anything they’ve done like some David Lynch opus or Inception-like blockbuster (although this is certainly far more like the latter). All you need to know is that Muse really enjoyed making this record, and I enjoyed listening to it. ...And I realised, at the moment, with my eyes shut, that I had been sucked into their vortex, and once again succumbed to the spell of The Riff. I imagined I was wearing a neon bandana, as I flung my body into a Brian May stance, and it was then that I truly began to pity those of you who believe Muse are some po-faced band. You have my condolences because The 2nd Law is seriously fun. Seriously!
8Sean Adams's Score