Album A&E – In Praise Of Muse’s ‘Showbiz’

Most bands arrive perfectly formulated, immaculately styled and unwittingly at the peak of their powers, spunking all the decent tunes they’ll ever write in one flash-in-the-pan debut album.

The best, most important bands, though, arrive touting an album that only hints at the greatness they’re capable of. Think ‘Please Please Me’, ‘Pablo Honey’, ‘David Bowie’, and ‘Showbiz’.

Compiled from a variety of recording sessions with an assortment of producers, Muse’s debut hung together awkwardly and sounded thinner and reedier the more meaty and magnificent their subsequent albums became – the first song ‘Sunburn’ even finds Matt Bellamy (singing through producer John Leckie’s ancient Nazi microphones no less) bewailing his band’s unreadiness in the face of major label interest: “Come waste your millions here…A guilty conscience grows”. It’s clear that even Muse thought ‘Showbiz’ was a warm-up, a test of the detonating switch in practice for their real explosion.

But in the reflected glow of ‘Origin…’ and ‘Absolution’, ‘Showbiz’ becomes a rare treat, like flicking through your fiancée’s baby pictures. The arch, over-reaching pop of ‘New Born’ and ‘Time Is Running Out’? Their DNA swamps ‘Sunburn’. The curling riffs of ‘Plug In Baby’? Given an Arabian twist on ‘Muscle Museum’. The histrionic screamager riots of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘Micro Cuts’? Born in the roaring craw of ‘Cave’ and the Mediterranean mania of ‘Uno’. ‘Unintended’ is a stirring precursor to grand ballads like ‘Falling Away With You’ and ‘Blackout’; ‘Fillip’ and ‘Showbiz’ signpost the proggish song cycles of ‘Exogenesis’ and the clash of classical and hard rock is writ large throughout the album, from its opening piano refrain to ‘Hate This And I’ll Love You’’s closing bombastic bluster.

Though the most transparent lyrics found Matt attacking his hometown of Teignmouth and all who mocked in her (in the bluesy ballad ‘Falling Down’ he even fantasises about burning the place to the ground), there were early hints of his other-wordly concerns: ‘Muscle Museum’ is supposedly about a future when humankind no longer needs physical bodies. Hence ‘Showbiz’ is, essentially, Muse in micro.

Bogged down towards the end with re-worked B-sides (‘Escape’, ‘Overdue’) and bursting with ambitious prog interludes, ‘Showbiz’ seemed indigestible on its first release, and uncatagorisable too – critics picked out the obvious Radiohead comparisons but Muse had far more Holst and heavy metal in their hearts; the best the press could do at the time was file them next to Mansun under Mad Rock Nutjobs and hope they went away.

Twelve years on, though, it’s become a cult favourite, and not just for its value to modern rock archaeology. Despite the album’s – relatively – weedy production and mild bent towards ‘The Bends’, Chris Wolstenholme’s incredible bass stampedes from the ‘grooves’ with the unstoppable force of Kate Winslet smelling smoke, while Bellamy’s songwriting on all five of the album’s singles, and its title track, is already stadium-class, and his virtuosity flagrant in the scorching guitar scree of ‘Uno’.

In the Muse canon ‘Showbiz’ seems like a minnow amongst leviathans, but a fresh revisit – with our ears now broken in by ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ – reveals something of a lost classic. Especially if your copy stops at track nine.

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