Favorite Tracks: “Dark Side,” “Break It To Me,” “Blockades”
God, look at that album cover. Designed by the man behind the posters for STRANGER THINGS, it tells you all you need to know about Muse’s eighth album with one look: it’s a garish mess of ‘80s pastiche thrown together to cynically instill warm nostalgic feelings in the audience, and its original qualities only highlight why it pales in comparison to the art it’s stealing from. Even among neon pinks and blues and campy depictions of everything from GHOSTBUSTERS to TEEN WOLF, the trio are stoic and too-cool-to-care. As Muse have only grown increasingly bloated, their inability to portray any mood beyond stone-faced seriousness and portentous belief in their own brilliance has similarly grown, qualities that made albums like DRONES appear interesting on paper but in reality were damn near unbearable.
DRONES should have been the back-to-basics rock album that put a stake through the rat-king of dubstep, strings sections, and operatic choirs that their music had become, because no one can deny that Muse has a lot of technical ability that gets lost in the symphonic bombast. Instead, it was a monochromatic, grim, poorly-produced waste of some great guitar playing that still felt too-long and overly-ambitious. Muse have identified that the grimness was the problem, so on SIMULATION THEORY they’ve overcompensated by simultaneously indulging in flashy, nerdy ‘80s synthpop revivalism that further shelves the tight rhythm section responsible for the band’s best song, highlighting the lack of any joy in the vocals or lyrics to support the ridiculous, bright music.
As overstuffed as “Knights of Cydonia” is, or as insufferably angsty as “Hysteria” is, they are the best things Muse ever wrote because they have infectious drive and groove; nobody can resist the rollicking gallop of the former or the tight, distorted pulse of the latter. You’d think synthpop and electronica would be a perfect framework for them to use their talents, but they relegate the rhythm section and stick to mid-tempo progressions, underwhelming percussion, or lame bass wobbles that don’t translate well to an anthemic, soaring tone. The R&B finger-snaps over the verses of “Propaganda” do not match the pitch-shifted monstrosity that is the hook, and the slow bass warble, cymbal skitters, and claps of “Thought Contagion” do not prepare you for the soaring background vocals and the dramatic piano in the tediously stretched pre-chorus. At least “Break It to Me” has a rickety drumbeat that sounds like something Clipse would have rapped over in their heyday, and “Blockades” has some real drive to it, with thunderous drum rolls and a satisfying guitar solo, one of the few on the record.
Muse’s most persistent issue has always been Matt Bellamy. The dude oversings, grunts, and groans his way through every line, overcome with glee at the brilliance of what he’s saying. It would be a problem no matter what he is saying, like when he’s out of breath gasping on “Pressure” about how fans won’t let him make the music he wants to make, but it’s utterly crippling when he wants to talk about politics. This is an album about virtual reality and mind control, which are the worst topics for Bellamy’s histrionic howling and the vague, monosyllabic writing, and come across far too conspiratorial for my liking. Even when he’s trying to be optimistic on songs like “Get Up the Fight” or “The Void,” he still doesn’t sound earnest or sincere. Music this bombastic and electronic needs to be tempered with empathy, wit, or another human element to not dissolve into rambling nonsense, and Bellamy’s talents have never included any of these.
SIMULATION THEORY is all over the place musically, going from dinky, chugging guitars to angelic swells of synth, to dubstep, but that could be redeemed one of two ways. One is if the songwriting was good enough to make these moments come together with smooth transitions and a coherent atmosphere, but that goes out the window almost immediately on opener “Algorithm.” Even as Bellamy dramatically bellows his lungs out over a powerful stomp out of Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer,” the synths are more reminiscent of the Electric Parade at Disney World than anything with real grit or menace. It can’t decide between the apocalyptic surge of guitar of “Blockade” or the tropical synths and dinky acoustic guitar of “Something Human,” bouncing back and forth between dark and light, industrial and colorful, often on the same song, and Muse are not good enough songwriters to make these ideas flow into another or even contrast each other.
The other fix would be if there was enough infectious energy or catchiness to entice the listener to turn off their brain and settle in for the ride, which Muse have certainly succeeded at in the past and has been the saving grace of many an arena rock band before. After all, as Muse’s heroes Queen clearly illustrate, a roaring guitar solo or a world-conquering chorus forgive quite a bit. However, since the album isn’t especially fast or catchy, the guitars are blocky walls of nothing, and Muse has no concept of joy and deliver everything in the same campy, melodramatic way, it’s not especially fun, and ephemeral moments of enjoyment are easily lost in this pile-up of bad ideas. You can change the music they make, but you can’t change Muse themselves.