Taking yourself seriously opens the door for some pretty well deserved criticism. This is especially true in the music industry and the realm of concept albums. Many musicians have tried to tackle big worldly themes with all the honor of a social crusader. The way you carry yourself while doing so is really what makes the difference for me, mostly because we have to accept the fact that (a) you’re just a musician and (b) your music isn’t going to change anything. It’s a sad truth that many Bob Dylan fanatics would probably like to argue with me, but in 2012, do you really see one LP from a stadium rock group changing the psyche of the globe?
The reason I pose this question is because of Muse’s relentless pursuit of a global awareness concept album. Every few years, they release a large scale album with themes bigger than the one before it. Dating all the way back to 2001’s Origin of Symmetry, the English trio has covered everything from alien invasion to political corruption to full-scale global revolution. It is astounding how big Matthew Bellamy is willing to take it. Now, I’m not criticizing his ambition or even his music. Despite its shortcomings, I have enjoyed a great deal of Muse songs and albums. Hell, I even saw them live. I just have to wonder how seriously we can take a band in 2012 with this type of message.
So as not to sound totally hypocritical, my favorite album of the 2000s was American Idiot, a concept album that covered a wide range of political themes. Although, even as Billie Joe Armstrong was crusading his album and making handfuls of cash in the process, he seemed to do so with a boyish smile and a hint of self-deprecation about him. While the themes covered American Idiot were certainly lofty, they focused on personal relationships and experiences without ever fully shifting to commentary. On their subsequent album, 21st Century Breakdown, Armstrong took to preaching and educating, which grew tiresome in a big hurry.
For Muse, though, they make the holier than though tone of 21st Century Breakdown sound like a Wiggles album. On track after track after track, Bellamy is so comfortable pointing the finger at everyone else. On “Take a Bow,” the opener to Black Holes and Revelations, he belts out “Yeah you’ll burn in Hell for your sins!” This type of accusatory line is actually quite common in Muse songs, even the slow love jams. So what is the disconnect? Why can’t Matthew Bellamy make songs about serious world issues? Why can’t he shed some light and some commentary on problems facing us the 2010s?
It’s the presentation! I truly believe that Muse songs would be immensely more popular and draw way less eye rolling if (1) Matthew Bellamy was a better lyricist, (2) Matthew Bellamy was a better singer, and (3) if Matthew Bellamy wasn’t such a dick about it. I swear I like this band, just hear me out.
#1. If you’re going to tackle these issues and events that are already crammed down our throats on a daily basis by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and such, then you need a bit of wit to it. Bellamy, on the other hand, takes to using recycled political slogans and childish rallying cries. I don’t have to remind everyone of the oft-played “Uprising,” and it’s refrain “They will not force us! They will stop degrading us!” I’m sorry, but how much more generic can you get? “I look back at our fights like some kind of madness was taking control” is a winner off of their latest album, The 2nd Law. There’s nothing clever about these. There’s nothing catchy. It’s lazy simplistic songwriting trying to pass off as complex and intellectual. And it wouldn’t bother me so much if the band didn’t have such a good sound. They are amazingly loud for a trio. When they want to, they can rock hard with the rest of them. I think I just prefer them when he doesn’t sing.
#2. I understand that there is a place for melodrama in this world. Sometimes to portray something, you must do so in the most overly dramatic way possible. It is a tradition that dates back to the Greek tragedies. However, in Muse’s case, I think it is drawing a lot more chuckles than goosebumps. Just listen to how he sings his lines. He forces this synthetic deepness into his voice that I think is an attempt at an operatic sound, but is actually closer to Will Ferrell’s impression of Robert Goulet. Look no further than the 2012 London Olympics theme, “Survival,” where Bellamy goes as far over the top as he can on lines like, “I’ll never lose!” Bellamy is clearly asking to take what he is saying seriously, but it seems like he’s being serious enough for the both of us.
#3. Okay, so maybe this is really more directed at Matthew Bellamy than the band itself. I don’t want to hate Bellamy, but he makes it quite difficult. About ten years ago, someone got the crazy notion to compare Muse to Radiohead. I have no idea why? They’re both English and their songs are sad, but beyond that, what am I missing? Still, when confronted with this comparison, Bellamy basically responded with (and I’m summarizing), “Huh? What? Who’s Radiohead?” I’d find this forgivable if he didn’t say that the incorporation of electronic music and elements of dub step being incorporated into The 2nd Law would change the face of the music industry forever. I mean, do I need to say it? You know what I’m going to say. It all just seems so heavy-handed because who the hell is Matthew Bellamy? The guy reads 1984 and an economic article in the Sunday Times and suddenly he needs to educate the world!
Beneath all of this is some pretty damn good music. As I said before, they have a tremendous big stadium rock sound that would really do itself some good to exist without the preaching for a while. And if Bellamy could just kind of not be there for a few songs, that’d be cool too.