In Brief: Entropy, as applied to music, creates an incredibly uneven album. Still, it’s Muse, so it’s a ton of over-the-top fun.
Do you ever listen to an album and feel like the band is just double dog-daring you to put together the pieces of a puzzle deliberately presented out of order? Muse‘s The 2nd Law is one of those albums. The mega-popular British band, having learned some lessons in genre flexibility on their 2009 album The Resistance (which was widely derided by fans because of it, but it was the album that got me into the band and I still love it), apparently decided to make their next album a complete smorgasbord, throwing whatever the hell genre they felt like at the listener with seemingly little regard for how one track related to the next. I suppose it’s actually a logical move for an album that derives its name from the second law of thermodynamics, which basically states that entropy (or, in layman’s terms, disorganized mayhem on a molecular level) can only increase over time. Follow the path from the almost uniformly triumphant Black Holes and Revelations, to the distinct sections of poppy electronic rock, meandering progressive rock, and mellow symphonic rock that The Resistance was divided up into, to this bizarre tossed salad of an album, and you’ll see the band growing increasingly restless with themselves over time. Some of their genre experiments here are quite fascinating, and awesomely executed – I’d expect nothing less of the band. Some of them are… a little less than memorable. And the album seems to wander from one thought to the next without too much of a connecting thread between them. It’s kind of a Muse mixtape.
I’d be willing to bet that the fans who just want to hear Muse rock the stadium loud and proud may be the ones who get shortchanged the most. There’s no shortage of epic riffs and rhythmic thrills here, but more than anything they’ve done in the past, The 2nd Law seems to signal that the band is gradually getting bored with bombastic rock & roll. They use electronic sounds to achieve that special sort of over-the-top-ness in many cases, and even if it’s far removed from their past work at times, there’s still something so distinctly Muse about it. It’s more tempting to compare the band to U2 and Queen nowadays than to write them off as Radiohead wannabes, but ultimately I’d say that the band is stronger for emphasizing these influences. Muse has always been one of the world’s most extroverted bands, and Radiohead has grown steadily more introverted and subversive over the years. Not that RH is a bad influence, but it was a comparison that Muse desperately needed to escape. So nowadays when they come up with a song in which programming and synthesized sounds dominate, I don’t think of Radiohead; I just think that the members of Muse went clubbing or were digging through old soul records or whatever and decided “What the hell; let’s give this genre a go and see what sticks.” I enjoy the diversity – I just wish a little more effort had been made to bridge the stylistic gaps between songs.
Another interesting thing about The 2nd Law is that it seems to de-emphasize Matthew Bellamy as the face of the band. True, his histrionic vocals are still front and center on most of its tracks, and I’ve grown to appreciate them over the years, so I wouldn’t have it any other way. But there seems to be an equal time law in place stating that however long Bellamy spends wowing the audience with his guitar, the rhythm section gets that same amount of opportunity on tracks that hardly sound guitar-based at all. Bass player Christopher Woolstenholme actually gets to step up to the mic for two tracks later in the album that he wrote for the band. And in the album’s final act, aside from some lyric-free wailing, we don’t hear vocals from anyone in the band at all, as they lay down a bizarre instrumental suite full of alien rhythms and snippets of newscasters talking about the world (or at least the economy) steadily hurtling itself towards destruction. That’s the de facto theme on this album, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing it, since the lyrics often default to either personal relationships or total world domination. If you like your lyrics more on the subtle side, then this definitely isn’t the album for you, but if you can handle a band being ridiculous so long as they’re self-aware about it, then I think The 2nd Law might be an enjoyable ride for you. It’s certainly an album that puts a silly grin on my face, even though there are several moments where I’m kind of embarrassed for these guys.
Muse begins with all the bombast we’d expect from them, crunchy guitar riffs colliding with a string section that must have been ripped straight from a film trailer. Rhythmically, the drums are having fun faking a 4/4 rhythm while the strings and guitar are really in 6/4 or something like that – it’s a cool effect that is only slightly diminished by the fact that Led Zeppelin famously did this in “Kashmir”. Beyond the obvious comparison that’s transparent even to folks like me who aren’t all that well versed in classic rock, the song still manages to be distinctly Muse, backing off for a somber, military march sort of feel in the spacious verses, before all of the heavy stuff splatters on the screen and Bellamy lets his falsetto fly in the chorus. It makes the song feel a bit disjointed, but you can just tell it’s ripe for a huge display of pyrotechnics in their live show. The lyrics, like many of Muse’s best songs, are all about taking down the man in power – if you loved this attitude in songs like “Take a Bow”, “Assassin”, and “Uprising”, you’ll probably love it here, too.
The album’s first single is an almost complete 180 from its outsized introduction. It seems that Muse comes up with a slinky, R&B-influenced pop song on every album these days, and they’ve made it their mission to make each one more minimalistic than the last. This evolution began with the riff-heavy “Supermassive Black Hole”, then scaling back to the slap-bass funk of “Undisclosed Desires”, and now we’ve got very little other than a crackling electronic beat, some incredibly low-key plucking on the guitar, and Bellamy’s best attempt at exploring the soulful side of his voice… and it all seems to show up a bit too early in the album to make sense. Oh, and did I mention the synth bass and the incredibly catchy vocal sample that turns out to be the song’s big hook? “M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M-MAD, MAD MAD. M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M-MAD, MAD MAD.” You will just never get that out of your head. Against all odds, the sparse ingredients chosen actually turn out to work in the song’s favor, as if to take a step back from all of the insane fighting that’s happened in a relationship and give both parties the chance to breathe and sort out their feelings. It isn’t until after the bridge (which features a short-but-sweet guitar solo that you’d just swear doesn’t belong in this genre of music at all, but then again, that’s one of those moves that is so 100% Muse) that the rhythm section really kicks in, and from there the piece has a pleasant sense of fluid motion to it, with Bellamy’s earnest falsetto recalling the dawn of U2’s experimental era on Achtung Baby. This is one of those songs where my reaction to it went from “What the hell are they doing?” to “Favorite song on the album, hands down!” in record time.
3. Panic Station
Hey, speaking of slap bass… Yep, Muse is trying their hand at funk rock once again. This is one of those experiments that you will probably either love or consider it to be a total train wreck. I’m in the “love” camp just because of how well the band commits to the wackiness and showmanship of it. Chris Woolstenholme and Dom Howard pretty much own the song with the catchy groove that they lay down – Bellamy’s guitar sings out a melody over the top of it once the song really gets going, but the most part it’s not a guitar-heavy song. Bellamy isn’t about to be shoved into the background here, as he gives one of his most hilariously ridiculous vocal performances, really getting into the Prince-y-ness of it all as he hurriedly crams in his own background vocals, as if responding to the last syllable of each line of lyrics: “Doubts will try to break you/Unleash your heart and soul (soul, soul)/Trouble will surround you/Start taking some control (TROLLLLLL!!!!)/Stand up and deliver/Your wildest fantasy (see, see)/Do what the f*ck you want to There’s no one to appease.” Oh yeah, I should probably mention that this is the lone instance of strong profanity on all of the Muse albums I’ve heard so far. They’re generally good about avoiding that (hidden tracks they recorded while high as a kite notwithstanding), so it is a bit of a strange surprise here, though not enough to make me dislike the song. Heck if I even know what Panic Station is – whether it’s a state of mind or a stop just down the tracks from U2’s “Zoo Station” or whatever. I consider it to be mostly a fluff songs that happens to be a lot of fun while telling you not to let everybody boss you around. By the time the horn section chimes in, I’ve forgotten about my attempts to dredge up any deeper meaning.
The shift from electrified funk to mellow classical is somewhat jarring, much like the effect you’d get if you had The Resistance on shuffle and got one of its last tracks after one of its first, I’d imagine. This minute-long instrumental piece feels like a segue in some sort of old-timey silent film, which is funny because it leads into an extremely theatrical song.
We were already aware of Muse’s aspirations to become known as a modern-day Queen on the last album, but this one takes the Queen aping to absolutely ridiculous heights. I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing – the jaunty piano and goofy background vocals that seem like they’re ripped from a quirky Broadway show certainly help to set the mood that they’re going for. And the numerous key changes and show-offy, guitar solos are perfect for a song that’s all about persevering, beating the odds, and settling for nothing less than victory and total world domination. It’s great fun to listen to… if you ignore the lyrics. Bellamy’s just way too on-the-nose with this one, constantly crooning about how it’s a fight and it’s a race and he’s gonna win. There’s no subtlety to it whatsoever, and that saps a lot of the fun out of it by forgetting to bring along the subtext about social Darwinism or government conspiracies or alien invasions or whatever it is that he’s usually on about. The result is a musically overloaded song with generic lyrics that must be good for getting audiences pumped at sporting events (it was the theme for the 2012 Summer Olympics, after all), but that lacks the intrigue normally associated with even their silliest songs.
6. Follow Me
From here on out, things only get more varied and experimental. I’d go so far as to say that nothing between now and the end of the album is begging to be released as a radio single or remembered as a stone-cold classic the way the first several songs on the album seem to be. This one is a highly danceable song with a bit of that “dubstep wobble” to it that perhaps got a bit overhyped as though it would be the sound of the entire album when Muse was first hinting at it as a direction they’d be exploring here. It takes its time to build up and let the rhythm kick in, so the first comparison that comes to mind is the title track from The Resistance, which is one of my favorites by the band. This one has a far less mysterious tone to it, though, trading the moody caution of “Resistance” for a near-religious sort of fervor, as Bellamy pledges total devotion and protection for someone who is willing to lay down their life to follow him. It’s pretty cheesy, and like “Survival”, it’s all stated a bit too simply for my tastes, but it comes to such a euphoric conclusion that I still can’t help but like it. It ends on a flourish that just feels like the cry of a soul finally set free. It almost feels like there shouldn’t be much of an album left after that point, like they spent one of their best climaxes before the thing was even half over. Pushing this well into the back half of the album probably would have helped the average listener’s mood to be more receptive to it by the time it showed up.
Ah, there’s that old intrigue again. The sudden shift from spiritual satisfaction to cold cynicism is really jarring, but despite the placement, I’m in love with the irregular rhythm and the spacey keyboards – this one falls somewhere between OK Computer-era Radiohead and the more exploratory material Thrice put out in their later years, all while making sure the vocal performance is unique to Matt Bellamy. Here, he’s out for blood as payback for the cold-hearted wheeling and dealing that reduces businessmen to cutthroat predators, implying that the rich only use their riches to manipulate the poor into staying that way. This may as well have been the theme song for “Occupy Wall Street”, especially considering that it ends abruptly with a sample of the hectic yelling and screaming that apparently constitutes your average day at the Stock Exchange… to my ears, it sounds more like a prison riot! The instrumental breakdown leading up to that ending is pretty awesome, though, with Howard’s slick drum fills and several moments where the drums and guitar are playing different rhythms at the same time, just to mess with you. This’ll never be a hit single, but it’s quickly becoming one of my personal favorite Muse songs.
As if to purposefully torpedo “Animals” by making sure it has no narrative connectivity with the songs before or after it, Muse once again switches gears, this time giving us a long and tedious lullaby that Bellamy apparently wrote for the son that he and babymama Kate Hudson brought into the world last year. This sucker’s nearly six minutes long, and it’s a little bit too busy meandering about with its frosty keyboards and fantasy-land ambiance to remember to give us much of a hook. The result is admirable from a distance, simply for being a total break from anything we’re used to hearing from Muse, but that expected kick into overdrive never takes place, so despite all of the admirable attention to detail in things like the string arrangement and backing vocals, it ends up doing almost nothing for me. The chorus melody also feels too similar to past Muse ballads like “Invincible” – and a band should never remind me of a great song from their back catalogue unless they’re certain they’ve improved on it. The most audacious aspect of the song is that this little “lullaby” seems to be about the destruction of the environment, with humans decades or centuries in the future desperate to find solutions to the extremely limited land and resources that previous generations have left them with. As an idea for a song, that’s amazingly intriguing. Couched in a lullaby with a hushed “go to sleep” at the end of it (which, once again, feels like something that should have been saved for the end of the record), it feels like two incompatible ideas fighting each other for control of a single overwrought song.
9. Big Freeze
With four tracks to go until the end, this will be the last time Bellamy’s voice takes prominence. It isn’t exactly one of their stronger songs, opting for a breezy throwback pop sort of approach on the verses, complete with the other guys providing some of the weakest backing vocals I’ve ever heard from them (seriously, it sounds like they’re auditioning for a 60s girl group or something). Dom’s drums and Matt’s guitar finally start to do something more interesting as they transition into a slightly rockier chorus. Muse usually does the transition from soft and simple to heavy and deliciously layered quite well – take the gradual swelling and receding of a song like “City of Delusion”, for example. Here, despite some great moments where Bellamy really lets the guitar sing once it gets going, the mellower parts aren’t quite compelling enough to make us want to stick with the song long enough to get to the good parts. The lyrics seem to be aiming for some sort of a correlation between humans irreversibly damaging their environment and two people in a relationship damaging it by treating each other coldly, but the lyrics aren’t quite descriptive enough to make that analogy feel like it’s clever enough to be worth making.
10. Save Me
The first of the two songs contributed by Chris Woolstenholme is so different from the rest of the album that you could easily be excused for hearing it out of context and not knowing it was a Muse song at all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It has a strong sense of atmosphere and emotional vulnerability to it, with its glistening guitars and sparkling keyboards, and its relaxed rhythm that surprisingly gives way to a moving, sweeping chorus. Guitar and bass are used to beautify the song rather than intensify it, and on the surface it might seem like a very generic plea for salvation, but if you know the backstory, it’s actually pretty powerful. Chris wrote this one about overcoming an alcohol addiction that was severely straining his relationship with his wife and kids, so the song plays as part apology and part plea for help. It’s admirable because you completely see through the facade of “world-dominating rock band” here and into the heart and soul of one of its members. (Not that I mind the larger-than-life facade on the other songs. It’s fun.) The chiming melody in the climax scratches the same psychological itch that I’d normally turn to a band like Mae for. I’m gonna guess that a lot of listeners will skim right over this one hoping to get back to the epic rockage, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that this is one of the best songs on the album, even if it might have been better off if Chris had saved it for a solo album or side project.
11. Liquid State
We’re back to the crunchy riffs, pounding piano, and thick rhythms that we’d normally expect from Muse here, though this one seems to stubbornly shrug off its identity as a Muse song and just sort of trudge through all of the motions, as if it could have come from any alt rock-leaning band full of Muse fanboys. Having Chris at the helm is a bit of a liability here, rather than the blessing it was in “Save Me”. I can’t pinpoint anything specifically wrong here – he’s got an ever-so-slight amount of grit to his voice which helps lend urgency to the chorus, but otherwise his vocals seem a bit too indistinguishable from any number of modern rock frontmen. I’m not saying he should try to emulate Bellamy’s histrionics; I’m just saying he should only take the lead from Bellamy when the song’s affecting enough on its own to not require the vocal theatrics. This track would be harmless enough as filler to keep the pace up between two heavier-hitting rockers… it’s on par with some of the more middling offerings from Absolution, I guess. But it does nothing to contribute to the album’s very loosely suggested theme, and its vague message of wanting to be broken down and built up again as a better man on the other end isn’t the sort of thing that works well as the “last word” on an album that is actually pretty short on lyrics in general.
12. The 2nd Law: Unsustainable
Here’s where the band really indulges their fantasy of marrying bombastic stage-show rock to dubstep and hoping fans don’t cry for a quick annulment. Much like in “Follow Me”, there’s a slow buildup – this time dominated by a busy string section instead of Bellamy’s vocals – which leads to a thrilling rhythmic breakdown. Here, that breakdown is the focus rather than the supporting structure of the song, as buzzsaw guitars combine with fuzzed-out drum programming to give us the impression that Muse is having one of their songs chopped up and remixed in the middle of performing it. Bellamy gets a few wordless vocals in here and there, but the primary “vocal” contribution actually comes from a female reporter who reminds us on a seemingly endless loop that “In an isolated system, entropy can only increase.” This is harshly cut off by a fully robotic voice shouting “Unsustainable!” at us over and over during the heaviest parts of the breakdown. It’s fun to hear how the different elements combine here, and I think this is the sort of thing that could work quite well as an intro for their live sets, but placing it as the penultimate track of the album, where you’d normally expect the emotional climax of the story to go, honestly doesn’t do it any favors.
13. The 2nd Law: Isolated System
The second component of this album’s “title track” is much more reflective, still featuring a component of programmed electronic rhythms and DJ effects, but backing off considerably on the energy level. It’s really more of a post-script to the album, rehashing the same reporter sample that was prominent in the first part, and slowly letting it get crowded out with many more voices offering their not-terribly-profound thoughts on the economy and so forth. What is this, a Dream Theater sound collage? As a reflective moment coming at the end of a flawlessly paced album, this could work – you’d have been so amazed with the climax in the last few tracks that this track would only need to bear the burden of being the song that plays over the credits. But since you’ve just been through several tracks that seem to lack focus and fail to sum thing up, you just want Bellamy to chime in here and say something that helps it to all make sense. I’m not even talking about the message of The 2nd Law making sense any more – I’m talking about the unified identity of all of this weirdness as a Muse album.
–WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?–
Panic Station $1.50
Follow Me $1.25
Big Freeze $.75
Save Me $1.50
Liquid State $.50
The 2nd Law: Unsustainable $1
The 2nd Law: Isolated System $.25
If I had to rearrange the track order to make it flow a little better, then here’s my best guess. I think the “2nd Law” suite works better bookending the album (plus the sudden transition into “Supremacy” from the “Unsustainable” part would be pretty cool – and I’m willing to bet they’ll start their live show this way), plus I think it’s a good idea to split up the two Wolstenholme songs and save some of Bellamy’s more dramatic “slow build” songs for the home stretch. There would still be some jarring segues here, but I figure this order certainly wouldn’t make things worse.
1. The 2nd Law: Unsustainable
4. Panic Station
6. Liquid State
9. Big Freeze
10. Save Me
11. Follow Me
13. The 2nd Law: Isolated System
Matthew Bellamy: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, piano, synthesizers
Christopher Wolstenholme: Bass, backing vocals
Dominic Howard: Drums, percussion, synthesizers
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.