I wonder what it's like to be in Muse. The success is undoubtedly thrilling; healthy album sales in an era where 200,000 copies in the first week can get you to number one, regularly playing to massive crowds in massive stadiums with an accordingly massive concert fee, the kind of loyal fanbase who only ever seems to materialize to support prog- and metal-tinged acts, the creative freedom to chase whatever half-crazed idea you want not only down the rabbit hole but back out through the other side; These must all be great things to experience first-hand.
Muse have made bombast a trademark, possibly more than any band before. Queen, the band most frequently sited as Muse's forefathers (this is a lazy comparison; Muse add Queen-like flourishes to their songs, but they are fundamentally very different bands), were known for being ridiculous, but seldom were they bombastic. Look at "Bohemian Rhapsody"; it is over-the-top, yes, but it does not seek to over-power you. It is clever. It wants you to come along willingly. Compare that to any cut on any Muse album since Absolution, not including the slow ones, and the differences in approach become readily apparent. All three members of this very-much-a-Power trio reach out of the speakers and beat you over the head with their instruments, taking you with them whether you like it or not.
This, oddly enough, is central to their appeal.
And that appeal should be well-served by their new album, The 2nd Law. It is certainly big. The opening track, "Supremacy", is so overblown that I briefly found myself wondering if Muse had actually developed a sense of humor (another key trait that differentiates them from Queen, who always knew well enough to giggle along with the rest of the world). Once again, they have delivered an album of massive sing-along stadium anthems, this time with some dance music thrown in. But there is a problem with this album, much as there was with The Resistance, and I think it signals a change that deserves to be examined.
With Origins of Symmetry, on the whole a pretty poor album, Muse at least started to create their own sound. Absolution was that sound brought to full-throated life. The arrangements were almost always left to bass, guitar, and drums, but they made a hell of a lot of noise for just three guys. Black Holes & Revelations sought to flesh that sound out. They added mariachi horns, more strings, more pianos, more hooks. And there was an intangible, ineffable sense of it being bigger. "Knights of Cydonia" summed up the new direction Muse would be taking better than any other track on the album. And part of me thinks they know that's what happened, because since then, it hasn't quite been the same.
Before, when you listened to a Muse album, there was a palpable sense of ambition. They were striving for something. Whether you liked them or not, you had to concede at least that much. But in the subsequent albums, The Resistance and The 2nd Law, ambition has been replaced with scale. These are not the same thing, and should not be confused, though they often are. While The 2nd Law incorporates elements of dance music the band have only flirted with once before, they have not gone as all-out in their attempts to wrestle with the genre as they did with "Supermassive Black Hole". The attempt seems perfunctory, more commercially driven than artistically inspired.
There has been a bright spot in each release. The Resistance had the Exogenesis Cycle. The 2nd Law has "Supremacy", "Survival", and "Madness". "Supremacy" and "Survival" manage to encapsulate both scale and ambition, which is what Muse, until now, have done best. "Survival" is perhaps the most ridiculous, overblown, and silly song they've ever recorded. By definition, that makes it the most successful as well. But "Madness" is the key track here. The slow tracks on Muse albums have traditionally been the weakest, having neither enough musical beauty nor anything resembling lyrical coherence to maintain them, but here they've finally done something quietly stunning. Chaining the sounds of dubstep to an r&b slow jam in disguise, they've created the first truly moving song in their canon. It boarders on subtle, which, by Muse's standards, is astonishing. The most impressive thing is that they pull it off.
With The 2nd Law, Muse have mostly cemented a transition from exciting to reliable. The majority of the songs here are entertaining while you listen, only to fade as soon as they're over. But there is a glimmer of hope in "Madness". Muse would have to change how they seem to be defining themselves to embrace the new directions it proposes. The question they have to ask themselves, taking into consideration their album sales, concert audiences, and staunch fanbase, is whether or not they'd be mad to.