They’re a strange child, Muse. Since they were, well, New Born, listening to each album has been like visiting a distant nephew, wondering what new trick they would regale their guests with this time. From the promising but flawed indie-rock of Showbiz, they learned to crawl and finally walk unaided with 2006’s stupendous Black Holes And Revelations.
But the problem with learning to walk is that having developed the skill, its application is usually somewhat unfocused and aimless. Like that child waddling gleefully from chair to television to toy to unattended power socket, The Resistance – notable for being the first album produced by the band – showed a distinct lack of quality control and restraint. And The 2nd Law sadly shows no sign of halting the slide from their peak.
Their latest favourite toy is a squelchy, dubsteppy bass sound, unleashed with no little controversy in The 2nd Law: Unsustainable. It also crops up in lead single Madness – but unlike game-changing classic Supermassive Black Hole, where a comparable weirdness consumed the entire composition, here it is pasted shoddily onto a thoroughly conventional song. It drapes itself inelegantly over Follow Me, too – an otherwise worthy musical sequel to Map Of The Problematique.
Like every little child, Muse learn by copying their parents – sometimes shamelessly so. Queen are the most likely to find themselves checking empty pockets – Explorers, for a brief moment, copies the tune of Don’t Stop Me Now note for note, and the solo of Madness wants desperately to Break Free. Supremacy takes an almost stoner-rock riff and adds the strings from Kashmir over the top, while Panic Station’s funk is a thing of Wonder in more ways than one – though to their credit, Muse acknowledged the influence and employed some of Superstition’s original session players on the recording.
This is hardly news. But what was a forgivable indulgence on previous albums now just seems to highlight the absence of new ideas. The far worse sin than plagiarising others is to plagiarise yourself – Explorers is an Invincible sound-alike, and Liquid State’s riff is merely Muse by numbers. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme is suddenly promoted to joint songwriter and lead vocalist, but neither of his two compositions are anything more than pleasant, and frankly belong on a solo album. Muse is Matt.
Muse used to be about moments – while their songwriting was hit and miss, you could always rely on them to take your breath away with a burst of power, invention, or sheer cheek. The bit where New Born got going. The introduction to Plug-In Baby. Eurasia’s Prokofiev pretensions. The wobbly Dr Who synths in Uprising. THAT riff from Knights Of Cydonia, which made them one of the few bands capable of making a stadium go genuinely bonkers.
And they’ve almost completely disappeared. Only Panic Station really raises a smile, the funk adorned by a chorus so poppy it’s almost S Club. Too much of the album simply plods from dreary verse to dreary verse – Animals sounds like one of the songs The Divine Comedy started writing after they got bored of being interesting, and Survival should really not have survived the Olympics focus group stage. Madness eventually sees Matt hitting a lovely money note, but nothing beyond the capacity of U2 or even Keane.
A neutral observer at their last Wembley Stadium shows would have noticed that it was still the tracks from Black Holes… that were drawing the crowds, with The Resistance often receiving little more than polite interest. They may have a formidable and well-deserved live reputation, but Muse need a radical re-think – a producer or any other dissenting voice would be a start – or those crowds might stop coming at all.