The 2nd Law is the sixth album by British rock superstars, Muse. It is their most high-profile, but also their most varied album yet. A lot of the album is quite solid, but there are moments that will leave some of you scratching your heads and asking ‘Why?’.
Check out the full album in the playlist above.
After their highly successful, Grammy-award winning album, The Resistance, as well as their privileged affiliation with the London 2012 Olympics, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Muse to clam up and sink into the mediocre staleness that is the popular music industry. The spotlight has the tendency to do that. It is welcome to see, then, that Muse has taken this glorious opportunity to create their most experimental work to date. This is the kind of situation that could sway the future of the music industry, folks, now let’s see if this album has what it takes.
The 2nd Law is unlike any Muse album I have heard. For better or worse, you will hear similarities and allusions to Queen, U2, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and yes, Skrillex. But where is Muse in this musical style soup? Don’t worry, they are there. They have a good way of combining these styles with their own musical staples and lyrical imagery. However, there are several times where this integration is not as smooth. This is especially true regarding their incorporation of electronic music influences.
The album opens very strongly with ‘Supremacy’. An epic start gets you pumped and right into the feeling of the song. Muse does a very good job of painting musical imagery about war and deception here, using string sections to generate a feeling of espionage (a la James Bond). Military snares and operatic singing also help create this mental image. A different tone is expressed than the average Muse song though. Instead of condemnation, we hear a plea towards the overpowered governments, with their corrupt policies, for them to stop their globalizing enterprises. Enough is enough, it’s time to change, things have gone too far is basically what they are saying. These pleas transform into enraged sadness as an uprising begins to form. The guitar and Bellamy’s signature moaning really connect with the soul and get us riled up for the rest of the album. The ending twangs on the guitar create suspenseful anticipation for what will happen next.
What happens next, however, is rather disappointing. ‘Madness’ really drops the baton by being an abrupt disconnect from the feelings generated from the previous track. This is the first track where Muse has caught Queen-flu and it really shows. The dubstep (“Wait, dubstep?!?”, Yes dubstep) influences really don’t help matters either. Overall, this song is pretty boring. It does a good job showcasing Bellamy’s virtuosic singing and the vocal harmonies are nice, but these pluses are marred by the monotonous “Ma-ma-ma-ma…”ing and the uninspired wobbles. The ending is a drastic improvement, when they put on their U2 hats. The wobbling backs out of the foreground and provides support for the chorale section and by this time the whole sound is enjoyable. The song is paced well, with a good strong ending, but the beginning could have used a lot of work.
‘Panic Station’ kicks ass. It is a welcome departure from the regular operatic vocal style. The soulful singing with the strong funk rock support sounds magnificent. It reminds me of a cross between Franz Ferdinand and Michael Jackson, with groovy melodies, lots of soul, and wild pitch changes. Using the brass band previously featured in Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ was a really nice touch, adding a lot of energy to the song. It’s a great song; probably one of my favourites off the album. It just makes me want to jam out.
Next we are treated to a very beautiful, orchestral ‘Prelude’ that brings us into ‘Survival’, the official song of the London 2012 Olympics. This song sound likes a sports anthem and is very Queen-like again. Overall, it is a good inspirational song to get you pumped for an activity, but it’s pretty boring besides that. The vocals, background choirs, and strong guitar chords progress through the song and parallel the stoic pride and inner ferocity found in a professional athlete.
With ‘Follow Me’, we are now back into Muse home turf, with the implementation of their standard melodic keyboard runs and long vocal phrases. However, this song sounds quite generic, failing to break from previously established tropes in any meaningful way. Again, the electronic influence is not welcome here, with copy-and-paste pulses serving as background to an already generic song. The keyboard and vocals are nice, but that’s about it.
‘Animals’ is arguably the best song off the album and is quickly on its way to becoming one of my favourite Muse songs. This song resounds with intense primal honesty that reaches deep down inside (“You’re an animal/Don’t take anything less”). It’s true. We are all animals and this song does a really good job at aligning us with that fact. This song is quick to condemn those “animals” who are out of control; who take advantage of the less fortunate and spread corruption in the name of progress and capitalism. They are describing the indiscriminate conquest of the world by massive corporations. The final verse is perhaps one of the most provocative I’ve heard, suggesting that these “animals” should kill themselves and that it would do everyone else a favour. Strong words, but desperate times call for desperate measures is the message. The fatcats need to be stopped. I love that this song is in 5/4. It suits Muse’s style very well and also creates a kind of unusual or alien quality, bringing out the absurdity of our global economic situation from the perspective of an outside observer. The closing sample of an actual recording from Wall Street reveals how animalistic these bureaucrats really are.
We are given a breather from heavy themes and intense melodies with the next song, ‘Explorers’. This is a very pretty song that reintroduces more Queen-isms, but with a hint of Broadway musical quality. Overall it is very calm, discussing the loss of nature to global enterprise and the desire to be free from this world. It’s nice and pleasant, but not really anything to write home about. It kind of falls flat near the end due to repetition, but it has a nice outro.
‘Big Freeze’ brings back the Queen/U2 hybrid style heard here and there throughout the album. Overall, it’s a pretty standard rock song; good if you like this kind of pure rock sound. Personally I think it is pretty bland. It hits on a lot of musical and lyrical themes already expressed in the album and seems fairly redundant. It’s a nice background song on it’s own.
By the time ‘Save Me’ came on, I have to admit, I was getting pretty bored. They really should have gone for more intensity here instead of following up two tame songs with another tame song. This song and the next track, ‘Liquid State’ feature bassist Chris Wolstenholme on vocals and deal with the subject of his alcoholism. This song has an optimistic air to it, foreshadowing a successful resolution of the disorder. The subtle ramping in intensity is interesting and the drums with the dreamy guitar give a very peaceful feeling. The final guitar solo before and during the final chorus makes you feel like you’re being carried away on a cloud. Overall, ‘Save Me’ is a very nice, uplifting, and pleasant song on it’s own, it’s just not placed very well on the album.
I don’t understand why ‘Liquid State’ is after ‘Save Me’. This song also features Wolstenholme and his battle with alcoholism, but from a much more pessimistic and self-destructive view. What is the message here, that alcoholics relapse despite optimistic intentions and help from loved ones? Maybe they were going for the possibility of relapse always being a fear in the sober mind. Either way, I think swapping the positions of this and ‘Save Me’ would have been more interesting and coherent both dynamically and thematically. Musically, this song is fairly interesting. Wolstenholme brings a welcome change to the vocals, although his style is a little generic. You may wonder if you’re still listening to a Muse song, but all of the instruments remind you that yes, you are. The outro is pretty lazy though, ending rather abruptly without closure.
Alright! Now we are heading into the two-part title suite: ‘The 2nd Law’. This should be the time when Muse really struts their stuff; where they really show what they are made of. No punches will be pulled now… but oh, how I wish that was true. I wish I could say my expectations were surpassed beyond my wildest margins, but alas, I was sorely disappointed. ‘Unsustainable’ begins with epic strings and a robotic British woman going over Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. This has the making to be something quite epic; steadily increasing intensity as the woman describes how an economy based on finite resources is inherently unsustainable. Everything up to this point is great, even the voice drop in “…unsustainable” is fine. It’s shortly after that, however, when the giant facepalm happens. Muse pulled inspiration, of all people, from Skrillex, creating a very poor imitation with squealing and annoying digitized noises. Now I don’t mind Skrillex, and the rest of the instrumentation in ‘Unsustainable’ is fine, but this ruins the entire song. It sucks. I have no idea why they thought this was good, or why they included this in their album. Why did they think this was a suitable, representative piece for their entire album? No one knows. Well, I’m sure someone knows, but in my mind, no one will because I will refuse to acknowledge that this song was performed by Muse.
It is really too bad that the conclusion to the suite, ‘Isolated System’, is associated with the previous track. As a conclusion, it is very good. With no sung lyrics, it gives a good opportunity for the listener to recollect on all of the messages regarding greed, poverty, and unsustainability discussed throughout the album. The consonant, hopeful outro leaves the listener with a sense of hope that these urgent messages will one day result in social change and a rethinking of our global priorities. The album ends as a cautionary tale. “…Entropy can only increase” we are warned as the song fades out. The consonance disappears and we are left with a heartbeat, as if we are waking from a dream; as if we are waking back into our own dismal reality. Thus, we have just awoken from the album.
In the end, I would say The 2nd Law is very hit and miss. I absolutely love ‘Supremacy’, ‘Panic Station’, and ‘Animals’, but questionable inspirational choices, including most of the electronic influences found in ‘Madness’, ‘Follow Me’, and ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’ really tarnish the experience. Kudos to Muse for stepping way outside their comfort zone. This kind of experimentation is rarely seen in such a high-profile band. However, with such a variety of influences, the album lacks focus and consistency, which is required for them to link their strong political messages between songs. This album also suffers from poor pacing, with many peaks in intensity not being properly utilized to keep the listener entertained. Indeed, there are many flat stretches that can feel boring when listening to the whole album straight. With their newly-gained experience in operatic, funk, and electronic styles, I expect a newly refined Muse sound that will make the next album something you’ll want to look out for. Just please, Muse, no more Skrillex.
Album Score: 6.5/10
Here’s what I thought of the songs on their own*:
1. Supremacy – 4.5/5
2. Madness – 3/5
3. Panic Station – 4.5/5
4. Prelude – N/A
5. Survival – 3.5/5
6. Follow Me – 3.5/5
7. Animals – 5/5
8. Explorers – 3.5/5
9. Big Freeze – 3/5
10. Save Me – 4/5
11. Liquid State – 3.5/5
12. The 2nd Law: Unsustainable – 2/5
13. The 2nd Law: Isolated System – 4/5
*These are my ratings when evaluating the songs individually, not in the context of the album.