Forget the Olympics, the dubstep and the high-minded concepts. This is great simply because it’s fun
The Olympic and Paralympic Games turned out brilliantly in the end, but you can’t blame people for being cynical as they approached. Londoners were narked about the potential transport chaos (never happened) and the threat of nuclear atrocity on our doorstep because of warheads parked nearby (didn’t happen either). Outside the capital, concerns were aesthetic. First, those bloody mascots. Next, that illegible logo. Also, that typeface. And the final insult: the official song. No Olympic tune could ever hope to measure up to Whitney’s outrageously fit-for-purpose ‘One Moment In Time’. But that the overblown catastrophe of ‘Survival’ came from Muse – not only one of our finest bands, but one who, despite their sci-fi scale, always marked themselves out with heroic senses of humanity and melody – felt like a final insult after the misfire that was 2009’s ‘The Resistance’. Matt, Chris and Dom’s fifth album was an unintentional retelling of the story of Icarus as they became victims of their own ambition. And after Muse flew so close to the sun last time, it sounded disastrous that the album housing ‘Survival’ was to be based around the second law of thermodynamics (in brief: a way of explaining why any system based upon limited resources and endless growth – for example, the world we live in – is careering to a catastrophic end). Icarus, at least, learned the lesson of hubris from his mistakes. But then he died.
The reassuring news is that ‘Survival’ sounds marginally better on an album than in the context of the Games. But not much. If anything, it serves as a reminder about how 2012 got us all a bit overexcited. Chris Martin from Coldplay sure did when he described the follow-up, ‘Madness’, as the best song Muse have ever done. He’s wrong, despite it being an enjoyably sexual electro slow-jam that moves Muse along as a band, while re-establishing an element of mystique. But in keeping with the word ‘Survival’, ‘The 2nd Law’ gets better.
‘Supremacy’ opens things with a bombast that just about stops short of making you roll your eyes about ‘more bloody cataclysmic Muse’ because it does the cataclysmic Muse thing in a new way. “Wait to see your true emancipation is a fantasy”, goes Matt Bellamy. “Save our crops from drought”. There are plenty of lines like that, as they pre-empt the end of the world. ‘Panic Station’ is outrageous, taut funk – even tauter than ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, with the slappy bass and saxophones of some of your camper ’80s discos. ‘Follow Me’ is ‘Map Of The Problematique’ reimagined as a love song with dubstep wobbles. The fiddly ambience of ‘Animals’ recalls U2’s ‘Love Is Blindness’ by way of a Shins track.
Then the sounds of euphoric? Angry? (It’s hard to tell) crowds usher in the second half of the record, and the second law stuff really kicks in. It’s now that things get really interesting. ‘Explorers’ channels Queen once again in the shape of the melody from ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, and contains a warning about “the planet being overrun”. Things continue in this direction with the self-explanatory ‘Big Freeze’, which comes across like an angular indie band from 2004 (although, yes, via Queen again). Chris Wolstenholme’s confessional recovering-alcoholic segment – including the trippy ‘Save Me’ and the misguided alt-rock of ‘Liquid State’, both of which he sings – is less successful in the cold light of day than it probably sounded when the idea was hatched. And in the final act, the album doesn’t need the one true dubstep moment that comes on ‘Unsustainable’. By this point, though, you’ve forgiven Muse, because even though ‘The 2nd Law’ doesn’t scale the 10/10 superhuman heights of ‘Black Holes & Revelations’, it’s their most human record since 2003’s ‘Absolution’. It’s not inspiring enough to make us heed the warnings and change the world forever. But what Muse have done is re-establish themselves as a respected British institution by being fun. Exactly what the Olympic Games taught this country to do, too.