The 2nd Listen: A Review of Muse’s New Album, “The 2nd Law”

muse_the_2nd_law_packshot_rgb3_2I tend to judge albums quite harshly when I first hear them. They’re never exactly what I expect, so they can’t live up to that standard. With bands I love as much as Muse, the latest album can also clash with what I want to hear – more songs along the lines of my favorites from years past. I almost couldn’t stand their last album, The Resistance, because it was so different from their earlier work.

With a second listen, though, I know vaguely what to expect and can let the album speak for itself. The 2nd Law also stands out quite starkly from early Muse, so to judge it on its own merits required a cooling off period of about a day before I gave it another shot.

What I Wanted

A return to classic Muse of their first three studio albums. Melodic basslines, electronic arpeggios, lead guitar and keyboards played like half an orchestra in themselves. Grandiose paranoia and railing against any and all authority.

What I Expected

More Depeche-Mode-y songs like “Undisclosed Desires” from The Resistance, because I’d read back in 2009 that that was the sound they wanted to shoot for going forward, or something like that. From the title, I was also anticipating a fair amount of pseudo-scientific alarmism about thermodynamics and peak oil.

What I Got

A little from column A, a little from column B, a lot of new sound mixed in.

It all starts promisingly enough, the first track promising to “destroy the supremacy” with giant hanging bass riffs and at least part of an actual orchestra, but the second song, “Madness,” abruptly goes much smaller. It appropriates the wobbly bass so prominent in dubstep and works it into a spare, largely electronic, personal tune. I think it’s better than many old-style Muse fans give it credit for, but it’s definitely not old-style Muse.

Rather than Depeche Mode, “Panic Station” channels INXS and Michael Jackson. A short classical “Prelude” leads into “Survival,” the song you might have heard during the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics: certainly bombastic (a word legally required in any Muse review), operatic, and full of braggadocio.

“Follow Me” would sound perfectly at home on The Resistance were it not for the return of the wobbly bass. Considering that the song was written for songwriter Matt Bellamy’s new son, it’s quite a bit more loving and positive than normal. Honestly, I was afraid that would happen a lot more than it has on this album.

“Animals” brings a welcome 5/4 (occasionally 6/4) groove to the album, utilizing a similar organ sound as “Ruled By Secrecy” on Absolution. It’s a little abject hostility toward bankers and stock brokers, which the 99% can certainly identify with.

“Explorers” is reminiscent of “Soldier’s Poem” from Black Holes and Revelations musically, while “Big Freeze” is reminiscent again of INXS, as well as U2. Then we get a big curveball in the form of two songs written and sung by bassist Chris Wolstenholme. Since he’s only ever sung background vocals before, it’s quite disconcerting – more than anything, the tunes remind me of keyboardist Tony Banks’s work away from Genesis, for whatever that’s worth.

The two “The 2nd Law” tracks at the end are this album’s answer to the “Exogenesis Symphony” of The Resistance, but less symphonic and more electronic. This probably won’t be played in concert without considerable sampled or recorded material, a la Queen’s tendency to just play the record for the middle portion of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Does it all add up to a cohesive album? Not really, no. There are themes of destruction and rebellion, as always, but “Follow Me” and Wolstenholme’s contributions interrupt what little flow there is, given the frequent genre-hopping. Normally Muse is expert at blending classical elements with near-metal, but it comes off more hokey here. I’m sure I’ll grow to love it just as I did The Resistance, but it might take a while.

The album is set for release October 2 in the States; there’s a presumably limited-time stream of the full album available for free.

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