Muse – The 2nd Law

Sixth album The 2nd Law finds Muse hedging their bets, writes TOM WILLIAMS.

Muse are a band of harsh contrasts. They attempt to maintain a balance between the radio-friendly and the progressive, and they’re just as capable of writing relentless prog-rock anthems as they are simplistic pop laments.

The move away from the nuanced space-rock tendencies of 2001’s Origin of Symmetry and 2003’s Absolution has left many fans disillusioned, and rightfully so. It’s terribly difficult to keep two disparate sets of fans happy. The 2nd Law will continue to fracture the already fragmenting Muse fan-base, because it expands the band’s sound and creates even more disparities in the process. Moments of pure genius and strange periods of awkward musical pretentiousness are juxtaposed together. The album lacks coherence, and feels somewhat like a collection of singles, each of varying quality, and each pulling the listener in a different direction.

The 2nd Law follows a similar formula to 2009’s somewhat disappointing The Resistance, yet seems to make better use of the structure: It moves from the radio-friendly to the progressive, and ends with a moody multi-stage epic about the state of life on earth.

Within this progression, the closest we come to the Muse aesthetic of the early noughties is on ‘Animals’ and ‘Supremacy’, although neither track can really be marked as revivalist. The former balances delicate flamenco guitar melodies with heavy riffs in order to express Matthew Bellamy’s contempt for neoliberal banker-types. The latter acts as the album’s dramatic introduction, combining a plodding guitar riff with filmic James Bond-like strings.

“It moves from the radio-friendly to the progressive, and ends with a moody multi-stage epic about the state of life on earth.”

Adopted Olympic anthem ‘Survival’ has a contagious over-the-top atmosphere, yet isn’t immune from Bellamy’s cheesy lyricism. The band’s collective musicianship makes up for it, though, with diving riffs and powerful percussion maintaining the song’s energy.

Divisive single ‘Madness’ is a simple pop track with an R&B undercurrent that’s catchy, but doesn’t really work; while the recurring “earth is a lost hope” allegory of ‘Explorers’ is akin to the self-aggrandising expressions last seen on The Resistance ’s ‘Guiding Light’. There’s a humble honesty to ‘Save Me’, in which bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes on vocal duties. His voice isn’t as dynamic as Bellamy’s, yet is simple and unadorned, making you wonder why it hasn’t been utilised more often in the past. Perhaps the most exciting track is closer ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’, which fuses delicate piano and guitar lines with pulsing electronic percussion and cinematic strings. It’s a sound we’ve scarcely heard from Muse, not on this album, or others before it.

The 2nd Law is a catch-22 release: It explores some daring new sounds, yet seems to base itself in radio-friendly tracks that mimic current trends. Progressive yet conservative, philosophical yet everyday, Muse’s dynamism is hard to deny.

The 2nd Law is out now through Warner.