Saturday, October 13, 2012

Muse's The 2nd Law: A track-by-track review

I'm trying something new here: a track-by-track review of an album on a first (or close to first) listen. I've listened to the first five tracks a few times, but these are as close to my "first listen" thoughts as I can manage. I have been a fan of Muse for three albums now, since 2006's Black Holes and Revelations, and I'm quite familiar with all of their work. I've eagerly anticipated The 2nd Law - a perhaps overly reaching reference to the law of thermodynamics that deals with entropy, the tendency of all systems to head toward what essentially amounts to disorganization or chaos - for several years, and I thought it might be apropos to give my knee-jerk reactions to each track. I've given short thoughts on each track, as well as a quick one-word review: Excellent, Good, Neutral, Weak, or Bad. My thoughts on the whole album will be included at the end.

Supremacy: The album-opener sounds like Muse's attempt to write a Bond theme song (I have no evidence to back up if it actually is, but it definitely sounds like it.) It moves fluidly from jagged guitar work to piercing falsetto to trumpet-infused melody in classic Muse fashion. Excellent.

Madness: A very poppy track that relies on a solid musical underpinning with Bellamy's signature vocals. It has a great groove and funky sensibility, and it works really well. Excellent.

Panic Station: A poppy throwback to 80s pop-rock bands like Madness and Crowded House. I'm surprised to hear it this early in the album, as it seems like the kind of track that would often be buried somewhere in the "track 8-10" zone on an album. Then again, Muse has never been conventional. It's going to take time to figure out if it works, so for now it gets a neutral.

Prelude: A track that exists only insomuch as to serve as a musical introduction to "Survival". It features more of the classical sensibilities of the band, and it does work well as a lead-in to the lead single. Good.

Survival: This is the first true "Muse" track on the album. It's easy to hear their career trajectory from Absolution through Black Holes and Revelations to The Resistance on this song. I will admit that, although I appreciated the song when I heard it as part of the Olympics this summer, it did not fit that context. Here, it fits perfectly. Good.

Follow Me: A classic Muse love ballad that meets up with dubstep partway through. It's an interesting mix, and I think this might be the kind of song that really shines in other forms, whether it be concert acoustic or full dubstep dance remix. Good.

Animals: Calling back to earlier Muse albums, this flamenco-inspired track is another meditation on human morality. It moves into an interesting instrumental breakdown partway through, but then it seems to end suddenly; I'm sure it doesn't, but it felt like it did. I think it's the kind of track that will grow richer in subsequent listenings, but for now, it's just kind of there. Neutral.

Explorers: Another stripped-down ballad (at least at first) in the vein of "Invincible" from BHR that feels like classic Muse. It's actually a lullaby, which makes at least two songs on this album that seem to be influenced by the band's children (the other being "Follow Me"). All three are playing to their strengths here, and they produce a solid track that will translate well into their arena tour. Good.

Big Freeze: Another 80s pop-throwback tune, "Big Freeze" is arguably one of Muse's most poppy songs ever, as it sounds like it could accompany the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie. It seems like a step in the right direction for Muse, and the layering of instrumentation works within the pop context. Good.

Save Me: Easily the track that is least recognizable as Muse, as bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes over lead vocals for the iconic Matt Bellamy. It lacks a lot of the bombast that accompanies the rest of the album, but I think that's a good thing. It's a gentle track, and it works. Good.

Liquid State: And we're back to the kind of driving prog-rock for which Muse has become famous. Wolstenholme takes lead vocals again, but I think this song would have been better served by Bellamy's falsetto and being placed earlier on the album. It feels like this track could have used a few more revisions, and it seems like the weakest track on the album. Weak.

The 2nd Law: Unsustainable: The promised payoff of the "concept" of the album finally comes with a track that begins symphonically before progressing further into dubstep before finding a way to weave Muse's now-typical orchestral layering with a techno-dance sampling. I wonder if this might have been better as a beginning track of the album, with its partnering titular track serving as an ending track. Good.

The 2nd Law: Isolated System: More layering with dubstep, but this time with a more introspective piano-driven melody. It's more of a dénouement for the rest of the album than its own track, but it works. Neutral, at worst.

Overall thoughts: Well, I was pleasantly surprised, as there was only one track that seemed weak ("Liquid State"), and even that was not too bad. The rest of the album is solid, and I think it will get better with subsequent listens in different contexts (Muse always seems to sound better in my car). I'm not sure that the theme of the album really hits as much as they might have thought it would, but I do appreciate the level of craft involved with having a definitive theme and identity for each album. The 2nd Law is a solid effort as Muse has begun to move more into pop and dubstep, and it works as a progression from their past albums. It is more introspective, which is a necessary move after the extreme braggadocio of The Resistance. The album is a must-buy for Muse fans, and it serves just as strong an introduction to the band as any of their past albums. Muse has carved out their niche, and they do it well - now I would just love to see them in concert.

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