Leading up to today’s release of Muse’s The 2nd Law, I found myself for the first time concerned about the direction the band was headed in. Based on what I saw around the net, this was a feeling many shared. Like myself, they were worried primarily about the introduction of dubstep into the band’s sound, but that soon morphed into a more general concern about the record itself and whether or not it would make up for their previous effort, The Resistance.
When it comes to the very last point, though, I was in the minority. Ask me what record of stands out most for me and I’d provide The Resistance as my answer. The main reason why is the orchestration utilized throughout. I can think of few better matches than Muse and a string section. That wasn’t the sole reason, though. It’s also my favorite in terms of lyrics, as I’ve had a thing for the dystopian as long as I can remember. Two songs, “Uprising” and “Resistance,” are even based loosely around one of my favorite works of dystopian literature, 1984. Together, these create a record that hits home with me in a way no other one of theirs has.
As an addendum, let me clarify that I love their other releases, just that The Resistance was the first to push Muse into that rare category of greatness reserved for those records that never wear out despite becoming my sole listening material for unseemly lengths of time. With that in mind, you can see why I would be as dubious of The 2nd Law as I was prior to its release. What I wanted, though I was probably alone in this, was The Resistance Pt. II, while what I appeared to be getting couldn’t be further from it.
At first, I tried to remain cautiously optimistic. In the initial trailer, nothing outside of the dubstep section exactly offended me, to be fair. Except it also did little to increase excitement on my part. A wait-and-see approach seemed like the best option, so that’s what I did. Then came “Survival,” official theme of the 2012 London Olympics, and things changed drastically. There was no dubstep, thankfully, proving that it would be more sparingly than I’d thought, but that was about it for the positives. Come the actual review, I’ll delve deeper into why. For now, I’ll simply say I was unimpressed by Bellamy’s vocals, a rarity for me as his is one of my favorite voices in music today.
At this point, my enthusiasm was at an all-time low and I was nearing skipping the record altogether. Luckily for me, though, “Madness” was the next to hit the web. While still not entirely up to par with what I’d come to expect from Muse over the years, it shined brighter than the sun in comparison to what I’d heard thus far and suddenly I had a renewed interest in the record. I would give it a shot after all. Chances are, it would disappoint me, a first for Muse, but that was a risk I was willing to take.
On first listen, I was right. Or so it seemed. The more I listened to it, the less sure I became of my stance on it. With each listen, I waffled back and forth between it being largely a disappointment and a relatively pleasant surprise. In the end, after a little over six listens, I’ve fallen approximately in the middle. The 2nd Law, generally speaking, is hit-or-miss. Yet it never quite gets a bullseye or misses the target completely. For more on that, it’s time I get to the review.
Kicking off the record is “Supremacy,” a song plagued, like much of the record, by the sounds chosen. In terms of content, it has Muse’s fingerprints all over it. What I take issue with is the execution. From the guitar tone to, at points, Bellamy’s falsetto, the song doesn’t quite mesh like it should. The booming brass, for example, sounds at odds with everything else, rarely coming together with the rest of the sounds as a cohesive whole. It’s not a poory written song. In fact, it has some of the catchiest lyrics of the entire record. My problem, which you’ll see I think applies to most of the record, is its realization leaves much to be desired.
From there we move to “Madness,” a song which takes a long while to get going. Though I like the opening minutes, with the stuttering “madness” that’s echoed throughout the song in the form of synths, and Bellamy getting a chance to show off the softer side of his vocals, it goes on too long for such a simple structure. It’s not until three-quarters into the song, following the weak guitar solo (a hallmark of this record, and one of my main qualms with it), that it picks up and turns into something more than a song that sounds nice enough, yet never really moves past that.
That’s when the backing vocals appear in full-force, giving the song the extra layer it needed to transcend its simplistic origins. If the song had just been cut down a tad, meaning it took less time getting there, this could have been that moment of real beauty that the record lacks. What a shame.
Next is “Panic Station,” which is like a better-done “Supremacy” in the sense that it’s undeniably catchy yet kept from being more by the sounds used. Admittedly, the guitar tone here is a noted improvement on the one heard in “Supremacy,” but it still doesn’t sound quite right to my ears. Though, it also is bolstered a tad by some fun brassy bits, and Bellamy is his usual self throughout, never piercing like he is at times on “Supremacy.” It’s those qualities that make it a marked improvement on the opener, yet the other aforementioned qualities which keep it, like the previous song, from achieving any form of greatness.
Preceding the next proper song is “Prelude,” a song showcasing what Muse excel at, which is soft, string-and-piano heavy sections. What I’m not sure about, though, is its placement on the record. As a “prelude” to the upcoming song, it does okay. But as a follow-up to the notoriously upbeat “Panic Station,” it seems like a rather random choice, a theme of the record.
Instead of feeling like a cohesive whole as The Resistance did, whether one likes it or not, it seems to hop around with no clear underlying idea tying it all together. From one song to the next, you might as well be switching bands or radio stations with how drastically different they can sound. This lack of focus is what’s to blame for its hit-or-miss nature, I think. When you’re jumping from one style to the next, as Muse is on this record, you’re bound to hit a sour note at some point, and they do their fair share of that.
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