Last November, Muse frontman Matt Bellamy proclaimed via Twitter that the band would be entering the studio to create a “Christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, [with] some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia.” Elements of that ended up being more true than false—specifically the face-melting metal and rebellious dubstep—but Muse’s The 2nd Law is as chaotic as Bellamy joked. This should be of little surprise to those who heard the album’s second single, “Madness,” which dips its toe into brostep territory. However, the song is just the tip of the bass-dropping iceberg, and even redeemable thanks to its funky little riff and some of the album’s finest harmonization. The dub elements feel so forcefully trend-grabbing (specifically on “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”) that it’s best to just chalk them up to a phase and move right along. There are more interesting elements to focus on, such as Muse’s way with ripping off others.
For a band so seemingly full of big ideas, Muse sounds on its sixth album like a hard-rocking collection of other bands, some that they’ve previously been compared to, and others new. The album’s catchiest song, “Panic Station,” resembles an updated take on INXS, particularly in its hooks. It’s not hard to imagine Bellamy strutting around the stage like Michael Hutchence, oozing sex with his stunning falsetto backing metal-pop riffs. The song would be a real triumph if it didn’t sound so much like another band, which just so happens to be the same problem with “Explorers,” a softened take on two Queen songs: “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Still, it’s appealing in the same way one of Muse’s most enduring hits, 2006’s “Starlight,” is, all shimmering hope and piano.
The same cannot be said for “Animals,” a dramatic mood-changer that sounds like something Radiohead would have left on the cutting-room floor. Meanwhile, “Liquid State” sounds like those one or two really “metal” songs that Dave Grohl managed to slip onto recent Foo Fighters albums. “Big Freeze” feels U2-esque, particularly in its guitar riffs and soaring Bono vocals, with Bellamy belting out lines like, “We destroyed something beautiful.” Other bands might not bother with as much primp and polish when they steal others’ sounds, but the men of Muse are real professionals in that way.
No one could ever accuse Muse of not being able to play. The British trio’s members are among some of modern rock’s most technically proficient players. In that way, they’re the Rush of their generation. But much like Rush, the music is polarizing, tailor-made for listeners who don’t want to run for the hills upon hearing the words “rock opera.” True appreciation of Muse’s music, especially on the new album, requires the ability to suspend disbelief. What the band has created on The 2nd Law is the musical equivalent of a massive-budget action film: men blowing shit up just because they can, a forced romantic subplot, and above all, the ego required to believe one band can save the world.