Muse are one of those bands for whom the phrase “style over content” is a compliment rather than a criticism. Indeed, the only way to get away with making such preposterously overblown music is to ensure that it’s almost entirely devoid of meaning.
Take 2006’s Supermassive Black Hole, for instance – where patently daft lyrics like “glaciers melting in the dead of night” are purely verbalizations of the bombastic tone of the song as a whole. Ten years on from the release of their first album, we’re firmly conditioned to think of their music as little more than joyful, deranged, self-referential noise.
It’s a surprise, then, to discover that The Resistance appears to be – gasp! – a concept album. Muse have taken virtually every other rock cliché to its logical conclusion, so why not? Pulling in a few none-too-subtle references to Orwell’s 1984, the album pits the bad men who run the world against a pair of young lovers; with the message that only love can resist the crushing forces of those in power. Capitalists, bureaucrats, governments, and warmongers all come in for a hammering.
“They will not control us! We will be victorious!” goes the chorus of opening track Uprising. Unfortunately, though, the issues remain so vague and the tone so petulant that Matt Bellamy comes across less like a songwriter with something to say and more like a stroppy teenager who’s been told to tidy his bedroom one too many times and is taking it out on the entire machine of our patriarchal society.
Even though Muse have always taken themselves very seriously, the loopy abstraction of their previous work meant it didn’t really matter whether the listener took them seriously or not. Here, though, there is explicit meaning at the core of the album, which doesn’t allow one the luxury of an ironic distance. The problem with protest songs is that you need to be very good at writing them to pull them off convincingly, and while Muse have the musical force to sustain the angry tone convincingly, the words are often risibly jejune. As we learn from Uprising, it’s time to “rise up and take the power back / it’s time the fat cats had a heart attack / their time is coming to an end / we have to unify and watch our flag ascend.” Good lord.
The sludgy conceptualism often affects the music, as on the final three-part Exogenesis Symphony; a long, dull track burdened with a pant-wettingly silly name which Emerson, Lake and Palmer would probably reject for being too ridiculous.
But there are several occasions when flashes of the old brilliance shine through, such as the electro-glam boogie stomp of Uprising and the sustained onslaught of Unnatural Selection. The latter is all that we’ve come to expect from Muse – everything cranked up to maximum volume, chuntering bass, pounding drums, searing guitar, Matt Bellamy’s voice snaking its way around the ever-rising melodies, legions of backing voices crying “hey!” on the drumbeats – and the obligatory huge chorus.
Resistance plays a similar game, helped enormously by approaching the patriarch/victim theme from the point of view of the young lovers. It’s buoyant, even fun at times – and the lyrics (“Love is our resistance / they won’t start breaking us down / hold me” etc.) pass by with only the merest curling of toes.
The electronic stylistic innovations of Black Holes & Revelations are carried forward into Undisclosed Desires, probably the best track here. The jerky robotic melody, bridging the gap between emo and electro, is likely to guarantee it a place on the soundtrack for the next Twilight sequel; and the slinky, effortless backing impressively echoes Brian Eno‘s best production work.
Yet three or four good tracks do not an album make; and elsewhere the spirit of the overwrought concept album rears its ugly head time after time. United States of Eurasia is not only the biggest, noisiest, most attention-grabbing track on the album; it’s also the worst. Like Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody shorn of all its charm, this tragically excessive folly takes in cocktail bar vaudeville, Moulin Rouge vocal histrionics, Brian May guitar soloing and a Chopin-style coda.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also the most political track on the album, marrying concerns over the development of a single free-market superstate with a catch-all anti-authoritarian chorus of “Must we do as we’re told?” A soupcon of anti-imperialism is slipped in via some Arabic-sounding noodling in the background, though this unfortunately evokes memories of Scooby Doo exploring a haunted pyramid rather than making any kind of geopolitical statement.
In its struggle to communicate its weighty themes The Resistance returns time and again to the polished, heavily-produced pomp of Queen, ELO, Supertramp, and 10cc – but, crucially, misses out on the humour, charm, and self-conscious silliness of those groups. If anything, the grim earnestness of mid-’80s U2 provides the most relevant benchmark; particularly on Guiding Light, a desperately serious power ballad replete with shimmery guitars and Bono-esque yowling situated far too prominently in the mix.
You’d be well advised to beg, borrow or download a handful of tracks from The Resistance; but if you’re planning to sit through the whole ponderous enterprise, you’ll likely need a blister pack of paracetamol and a hell of a lot of patience.