Muse were always over-the-top. Which is probably why I adored them as a teenager – teenage emotions tend towards the over-the-top, as you’ll be surprised to hear me observe. Yet like Queen and Meat Loaf, their over-the-topness was streaked with whacky humour and often camp affectations (is there any other way to describe Matt Bellamy’s voice?) that won me over to them despite a general aversion to prog. Unlike Yes or King Crimson, they seemed somewhat aware of the absurdity of their pretensions.
And they could write a power-punch, stadium-ready chorus like the best of ‘em, if they felt like it. And in truth that’s what I really adored about them – the power of their riffs, which gnawed their way into a burgeoning music-lover’s soul with an impressive persistence that overcame all the ridiculous nonsense they sung about resistance and overcoming THE MAN and apocalypse coming and whatever.
So Muse’s obvious problem has been how to keep all the legions of (mostly British) teenagers who loved ‘em in the early 2000s to keep buying their schtick as said teenagers have turned into grown-ass adults, with more subtle and concerning troubles than taking on THE MAN. And with a broadening of musical options in the streaming era, these same fans might also expect more from their music than just hard rock mixed with classical allusions – something akin to consistency, groove, and suppleness, maybe.
Muse don’t seem bothered about addressing these issues on Simulation Theory. In many ways it’s the same old stuff, right from the start – opening track “Algorithm” begins with pop synths and classical piano duelling in grand old Muse style, throwing pop and classical elements together in a strange but sometimes alluring mix, before the expectedly ridiculous lines come in that make the adult in me roll my eyes: “Burn like a slave/Churn like a cog/We are caged in simulations” Bellamy informs us, and this apparently warrants a call for “war with your creator.”
Yeah, Muse can’t write lyrics. Never have been able to, never will. But the child in me is willing to ignore this fact, as I always have done, if there’s some great hooks, infectious energy, hell even just a memorable riff or two. There’s none of that on Simulation Theory, which is a largely joyless simulation of Radiohead’s simulations of post-modern theory about simulacrum.
It’s easy to pick up on the idea that the synths which drench the album = a metaphor for simulated reality that’s both ironic and not. Plus, when Bellamy sings that he needs “Something Human”, you can understand what he means to a certain extent.
But where’s the humour and whackiness so beloved in Black Holes and Revelations? The synths and “dirty” basslines mostly burble along inoffensively, taking off in very limited capacities that limit the emotional crescendos of the songs and will certainly make them sound awkward and out of place in the stadium arenas where they’ll likely play. They take no risks as batshit crazy as “Knights of Cydonia” or “Starlight”, instead constricting themselves to simple pop constructions that don’t work for Bellamy’s overwrought vocals or his hysterical imperatives to “Get Up and Fight”. I don’t need to tell you that Bellamy and his merry band are never going to inspire anyone to get up and fight, even if they had a clue what they wanted everyone to get up and fight against. But it’s disappointing that, unlike say Bob Marley, they can’t make their general calls to arms at least sound fun.
Moments create a simulation that approximate towards entertainment: the cascading synth patterns of “Blockades” are catchy, at least before the unsuitably large and plodding drum sound enters the track, and other bits of ear candy such as “Break it to Me” have a limited charm. Limited because you’ll forget them as soon as they’re over – none of these tracks have staying power. Not one.
Which is a shame. Engrossed in their own tedious mythology about fighting dark powers – “dark” only because these powers are unenlightened in any way by the band – they forget to write good songs. As such, they’re likely to shed many of their ex-teenage fans on this release, and they’re likely to shed many more on their next release. Let’s face it, Muse are never going to grow up and face the real world, which happens to be so rich with people and forces to fight against at this moment. And it seems increasingly unlikely that they’ll be able to regain their goofy sense of fun, either.