Muse might be a British band, but they reached the height of their popularity in the States when George Bush’s presidency turned toward absolute contention. Without feeling too abstract or derivative, Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations played like soundtracks to “1984”; they spoke to our emotions, not just our politics. You might have even hated Muse, felt their political slant was a bit too “holier than thou,” but there was no denying their talent, the magnetic bass of Christ Wolstenholme and Matt Bellamy’s impressive vocal range.
This is why 2015’s Drones was a disappointment: On a surface level, it was a classic Muse album, concept based and musically exceptional. But the lyrics and concept itself were trite, difficult to follow and downright patronizing. Drones is comparable to your uncle frothing conspiracy theories during Thanksgiving dinner; it lacked tact and tried too hard to push a message about war and drones. In essence, it forgot how to have fun.
Muse’s latest release Simulation Theory settles somewhere in the middle. Although by no means their best release, it handles its concept well and brings Muse’s lyricism back to earth. Inspired by the “simulation hypothesis,” it talks about sci-fi like a dystopian novel would: thematically cautious and immersive, elegantly riding off the ’80s synth and pop culture trend without sacrificing Muse’s sound.
The initial track “Algorithm” begins with a pounding synth that transforms and builds; it gets grittier and rougher until it culminates in a softer, almost symphonic pulsation with the introduction of a piano and violin. Bellamy’s iconic falsetto carries the rising and falling of the beat following the minute-and-a-half mark. It plays like a fresher intro theme to “Tron,” with its ominous but melodic beat that oscillates between chugging and fluttering forward. Although the lyrics (“Churn like a cog / We are caged in simulations / Algorithms evolve”) are far from a little hard to take seriously, it still plays well into this sort of “Brave New World” Muse attempts to illustrate throughout Simulation Theory.
Conversely, the third track off the album, “Pressure,” veers less into abstracts. The imagery is a lot easier to grasp as Bellamy croons “I’m feeling the pressure / I can’t break out / No one can hear me scream and shout.” The phrase “pressure building” is whispered sporadically throughout the song, further pushing the image of someone breaking down with building tension. Classic Muse guitar riffs streak the song and pull it forward as a subdued synth slinks in the background. Heavy-handed and perhaps a slightly more esoteric presentation of our current political state, the song doesn’t make it too obvious, playing off more anthemic and catchy.
“Propaganda” serves as the album’s most overtly ’80s sounding song. Its opening rumbles with scratchy robotic vocals that repeat the word “propaganda” erratically, an obvious reference to Prince’s 1999. There are vague whispers of “Kiss”’s guitar licks and beats that marry well with Bellamy’s notably high-pitched vocals. But where Prince succeeds in telling his listeners “Fuck it, let’s party” at the sight of the end of the world, Muse fails as they persuade us to save it, folding in vague references to oil slicks and lying politicians.
The rest of the album follows the same formula of synth, a vague ’80s reference and political commentary. This isn’t to say the elements do not bond well with each other; every ingredient works in tandem to deliver Muse’s unwavering commentary and caution. Musically, the album is refreshing, deftly stitching in influences that generally exist strictly in genres. Despite the heavy incorporation of synth, the instrumentation is lavish and full, with bass and drums making useful appearances as well. As a concept album, Simulation Theory is polished, cohesive and steered clear of monotony.
The problem with Simulation Theory comes in the sense that it is too polished, too clean and too obsessed with the bigger picture. It paints a political picture broadly and in binaries of good and evil rather than exploring the more human component to our current political climate. Muse does not bring any new ideas to the table despite their extensive efforts to present themselves as profound. Politics is a lot fuzzier and expansive than brainwashing and good versus evil. A political concept album only really succeeds when it can be made personal and tell a story — not merely scream out abstractions and emotive lyricism.