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Muse, ‘The 2nd Law’ (Warner Bros.)

Kid B / Photo via Getty
SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: October 02, 2012
Label: Warner Bros.

The platinum-clad lads in Muse never pass up a chance to wax philosophic. Just last month, drummer Dom Howard sat down with the BBC to describe how the group’s new album documents their battle with the second law of thermodynamics. “It’s the theory that all energy, as we know it, in ourselves, on this planet, in this universe, is eventually running out and cooling down,” he explained from the state-of-the-art control room of London’s famed AIR Studios. “There’s a similarity in the songs, which is this human instinct, this drive, to want to survive and fight and evolve as a species. Which is anti what the second law is. So I suppose the album is ultimately about that, about humanity’s positive struggle against the inevitability of what the second law is.”

Science Guy turned anti-creationist firecracker Bill Nye would be proud, surely. But the fact of the matter is, there’s not an evolutionary bone in these dudes’ bodies. For the overwhelming bulk of their career, Muse have operated in a state of arrested development: three Brit-rock cupcakes so utterly overwhelmed by their obsession with Radiohead that artistic growth and progression have never been options. In every conceivable way — from the sonics, to the lyrics, to the rocker-as-shaggy-deep-thinker image — the trio has forever lurked in Thom Yorke’s all-too-dour shadow. Muse aren’t so much a band as a ripple riding atop the pond that is Radiohead’s sprawling legacy. But what makes their hero worship particularly taxing is just how fixated they are on their icons’ most pretentious qualities. Each new album (arriving as it does with the requisitely pompous title: Absolution, Black Holes and Revelations, The Resistance) finds Muse attempting to out-blitz OK Computer and Kid A in terms of overly serious Englishmen weeping for modern civilization and its myriad alienations.

Which simply makes The 2nd Law’s 50-plus minutes of 21st-century-art-rock-meets-sappy-popera business as usual. How many ballads have these guys recorded in the past decade that sound just like “Explorers”? Cue the lush future-scape — sweetly sorrowful strings, epic piano chords, hushed robo-pulse — over which frontman Matthew Bellamy’s floating falsetto declares, “Free me from this world / I don’t belong here / It was a mistake imprisoning my soul.” And if you think that’s overwrought, get a load of this guy on “Madness”: Riding a Skrillex-ish wobble downplayed to mere percolating atmosphere, he pines, “And now I need to know if this is real love / Or is it just madness keeping us afloat?” Or, is this affected hooey masquerading as poetic rumination? FYI, pal: If you’re somehow so confused and psychically numb that you’re too impaired to process the radical differences between falling in love and going nuts, then maybe lay off the anti-depressants.

Speaking of Skrillex, in the months leading up The 2nd Law, considerable online chatter ensued about Muse having gone electronic. The culprit was an album trailer released last June featuring an excerpt from the instrumental “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” an awkward blend of classical music and brostep that would sound right at home in an ad for the upteenth zombie-apocalypse video game. That track, however, was a total red herring, as it sounds like little else on the record — all other instances of digital experimentation (“Follow Me,” “The 2nd Law: Isolated System,” the aforementioned “Madness”) are agonizingly tepid.

Which brings us to the big problem nagging art-rock ever since Radiohead’s politely post-everything sensibilities overwhelmed the movement: a miserable lack of pizzazz. Not to come off like a dinosaur, but when ancient art rockers like Queen, Electric Light Orchestra, and Yes engaged the electronic novelties of their day (from disco to, later, synth-pop), they didn’t handle them like curators carefully shuffling Picassos around at the MoMA; no, they rolled up their sleeves and got down and dirty, crafting all manner of hybrids and fusions, resulting in killer tunes like “Under Pressure,” “Turn to Stone,” and the magnificently schizoid extended remix of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

No danger of anything that radical reoccurring here. Muse really should’ve gone off the deep end: you know, use some of that mega-budget to actually whisk Skrillex into AIR and inundate the place with an impenetrable cloud of PCP smoke for a good month or two. And then, after the label execs all lost their jobs or committed seppuku, unleash a dance-rock monstrosity exploding with brutal wobble, air-raid sirens whizzing every which way, and all manner of electro-industrial tantrums. Stop worrying about the impending apocalypse and create your own! However misguided commercially, it would’ve been a glorious train wreck to behold.

But as it stands, Muse are (and forever may be) too devoted to a micro-managed version of Thom Yorke’s dystopian despair. After all, they just made an entire album about entropy. How totally fitting.