Muse certainly know what they’re doing. They didn’t become darlings of the UK press and public alike by standing around clueless while the fads and trends of modern rock aesthetically surpassed them; Muse clutch onto the trappings of late-’90s grunge and industrial-influenced hard rock as consciously as Carlos Dengler styles his hair. What Muse think they understand underneath all the anthemic layers of posed apocalyptic angst and operatic hard rock is the fundamental difference between complacently representing the now in rock and ambitiously attempting to ascend the “era-defining” tag that cripples the fresh careers of other young upstarts.
With their third album, Absolution, Muse touch upon rock cornerstones of all decades past, elements known to propel bands onto the classic echelon. The angst and alienation of The Matrix-era techno-metal, defined by the aforementioned guitar sludge and industrial noise, still holds the unfortunate position of being the most expired offshoot of rock, yet it remains the nucleus of the record, represented in its purest state by the rockers “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Hysteria”. The lyrical bent, offering nothing new for Muse — or alternative rock in general (“This is the last time I’ll abandon you / This is the last time I’ll forget you / I wish I could”) — except perhaps a hint of optimism (“I won’t let you down, I won’t leave you falling / If the moment ever comes”) tends toward the upheaval of personal relationships as the world is coming to an end.
Instead, the highlights of the album are those that break from the subgenre’s conventions. The adventurous, psychedelic guitar embellishments, powerful piano lines and lush, melodic keyboard passages that have all become synonymous with classic art rock are best typified by the majestic opener “Apocalypse Please” and the symphonic “Butterflies & Hurricanes,” which contains no fewer than three astonishing, dynamic breaks in its structure. The verses of the lead US radio single “Time Is Running Out” and the entirety of the synthesizer-dominated ballad “Endlessly” hint at ’80s-style dance beats and polished production. Ultimately, the arrangements of more than half the songs are defined by their progressive ’70s bombast and pretentiousness. Even the album cover includes the sort of distraught-figure-imposed-upon-graphic-design photography that seemingly graced all the good art rock albums of the ’70s.
In an effort to both broaden their appeal and quell their creative restlessness, Muse barely alter their existing sound, yet certainly develop it further. At the end of the Radiohead-über-alles era, after years of being unfairly judged by some critical factions as scavengers feeding upon and regurgitating the ideas cast aside by the superior Oxford band, Muse have broken away from their obvious artistic forefathers, most notably by ditching the producer they shared, John Leckie. Absolution‘s production duties were instead handled by Rich Costey, who is clearly less of a sonic auteur, as he has worked with everyone from Rage Against the Machine to Philip Glass to Fiona Apple. While the change helps liberate Muse from the shadow looming overhead, which may help them finally break America, it also tends to demonstrate which facets of the band’s sound are the most redundant. Despite frontman Matthew Bellamy’s uncannily similar vocal timbre and inflection to that of Thom Yorke, only the gentler, more sensitive songs (“Falling Away with You”, “Blackout”) compare to those of The Bends– or OK Computer-era Radiohead. Perhaps the most striking comparison between the two bands is the trajectory they seem to be following, aspiring to greatness from an overly derivative, unexceptional beginning, and slowly but surely achieving it over the course of a decade. Radiohead’s model of success, however, is an anomaly in rock, and as such the band became an unexpected phenomenon, and a legend in its own right; can it happen again?
Absolution is certainly a step in the right direction for Muse, the third increment of their ascendancy, as another generation of “it” bands steps before them and consumes their limelight. While their classicist approach and lofty ambitions are respectable, it may benefit the band to stop advertising their promises and merely deliver. Bellamy sings, “Best, you’ve got to be the best / You’ve got to change the world / And use this chance to be heard / Your time is now”. They should follow their own advice; Muse’s time could be now.