Review Summary: Schlock 'n' roll.
English drama-rock trio Muse have enjoyed a large, perhaps disproportionate, amount of commercial and critical success in the last few years. They win every live act award in the cosmos one year after another, reinforcing their NME-bred reputation for being the last rock band out there really trying to have fun. The big problem with The 2nd Law however, their highly-anticipated sixth album, is that for the most part, it isn't any fun at all.
Let's start at the beginning. Extravagant opener 'Supremacy' is easily the most hard-hitting thing they've written in years. What a shame then, with all its juggernaut riffs and swagger and marching band snares, that it never amounts to a good song. For most of its five minute duration it simply plods along, forever leading the listener to believe something extraordinary is about to happen. It never does. Bellamy howls the song title through a traffic cone a couple times, and that's it. For an album so controversially considered to be influenced by dubstep, The 2nd Law's “drops” are surprisingly lacklustre.
Muse, as always, spice things up by throwing a few new flavours into the mix. This admirable approach has been successful in the past; Origin Of Symmetry's chugging Morello-inspired guitars gave that album a metallic lustre, just as Black Holes & Revelations' flashes of flamenco and electronica lent it an exotic feel. The 2nd Law's latest stylistic additions however are failures, ranging from baffling (the Reznor-tinged funk of 'Panic Station') to downright bad (the grating brostep of 'Unsustainable', although chances are you've already had that posted to your Facebook wall).
However, no song is as pompous, as gruelling, as unlistenable on The 2nd Law (or indeed any other Muse album) as the fifth track, 'Survival.' As blatantly written for the 2012 Olympics as 'Supremacy' was for Skyfall, it is the most obnoxious song by the most obnoxious band of the 21st Century. Histrionic guitars and chants from the Wehrmacht pile upon each other in a cacophonous heap, frontman Matt Bellamy all the while bellowing couplets as cliché as “I'll light the fuse... and I'll never lose.” Never before have I asked my stereo speakers to shut up out loud.
Bellamy's vocals on this album are the least impressive of his career, largely trading in his glass-shattering falsetto for ho-hum Bono impressions and crass attempts at being seductive. Squelching single 'Madness' in particular shows the inferiority of his chest voice, his hushed words sounding less like the whispers of a lover than the rasps of a sex offender at a bus stop. Go back to imitating Thom Yorke dude, seriously.
Many of the album's thirteen tracks blur past without leaving any real impression; 'Follow Me' is dubstep-tinged pop of the most generic, radio-friendly variety, whilst breezy Showbiz throwback 'Animals' is, by the album's bombastic standards, far too slight. Save for two back-to-back songs written and sung by bassist Chris Wolstenholme (glossy ballad 'Save Me' and the more aggressive, Killing Joke-esque 'Liquid State'), the rest is just big, empty, run-of-the-mill Muse.
So how does this album work as a whole? It doesn't. To coin a term, The 2nd Law is Muse's “splat” album: an LP where any and all musical ideas are hurled against the canvas, generally at the cost of coherency and flow. Pink Floyd's Ummagumma is a classic example, whilst more recent specimens include Bloc Party's Four and Animal Collective's Centipede Hz. This approach can produce either a sumptuous sonic feast or a jumbled, inconsistent mess, The 2nd Law without a doubt the latter kind. Muse's “anything goes” mentality has, at long last, backfired.
Brostep? Go on. Bavarian beer-hall chants led by Freddie Mercury? Please. Giving the bassist lead vocals on two tracks? You bet! Let's even make them consecutive.
There is no thread running through the album, no underlying theme, save for a vague anti-establishment narrative spewed without irony from the mouths of the largest corporate rock band in the world today. Oh yeah, and some *** about thermodynamics.
This album should be Muse's downfall, but it won't be. It'll be bought regardless by their over-loyal fans, the same people that flood Wembley Stadium every time the band plays to “ooh” and “ahh” at their laser shows, those who believe excess can ever be a substitute for substance. It may even fare well critically, the British publications sure to award it an arbitrary four stars in reviews littered with garish nouns like “glam” and “stomp.” This album is rip-roaring “fun”. Boy, do these songs have “punch”!
Back in the real world, Muse have released their most bloated, incoherent and charmless album ever, its occasional glints of beauty (such as the final minute of 'Madness') nowhere near enough to justify wading through it all. Keep walking folks, there isn't even guilty pleasure to be had here.