Album Assignments: The 2nd Law

This time it was Robby’s turn to help me fill in a gap. He assigned me The 2nd Law by Muse, a band about whom I knew the barest trivia-question minimum: Science-inflected prog rock. Had some modern rock hits. Memorable titles “Knights of Cydonia” and “Supermassive Black Hole”. Not from around here — like Canadian or English or something. (Turns out they’re English, from Devon.)

And that’s it. I had never listened to a Muse album, or even really paid attention to a single Muse song. So I didn’t know what to expect when I cued up the first track, “Supremacy.” But seconds in, I knew I was going to like it. A powerful stomping guitar riff, met with James Bond-y adventure strings, cool. Appropriately menacing and theatrical vocals, cool. And then, about two minutes in, Matthew Bellamy suddenly unleashes an impossible falsetto, diving straight into chills-down-the-back Robert Plant territory as the riff thunders across the frame. AWESOME. That’s when I knew I was going to love it.

There’s plenty of Zep in the Muse mix, but the band I kept thinking of as I listened to the album was Queen. There are Queen-y hallmarks all over this album, starting with Bellamy’s wonderfully dynamic voice and heading right through the layers of guitars and harmonies on songs like “Madness.” In a few places, I felt like Muse might even be quoting Queen deliberately — take for instance “Explorers”, where the melody line on “it was a mistake imprisoning my soul” sounds like it could be a harmony part for “two hundred degrees that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit” from “Don’t Stop Me Now.” As I said, I don’t know the rest of the Muse canon, but based on The 2nd Law alone, I’d say that Queen’s crown has passed to the Devonian trio, and they’re wearing it proudly.

Album cover for The 2nd Law

Now, that’s not to say that Muse displays the kind of White-album-esque variety on show in a record like A Night At The Opera, but they’ve got their fair share of surprises on hand. For an album that starts out sounding like it’s going to be straight-ahead hard rock (well, with orchestral flourishes I guess), The 2nd Law throws increasingly heavy doses of electronica into the mix over time. This curve culminates near the end of the album, in “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, which starts out string-heavy, then pulls in a spoken track (though looped to stutter occasionally) that sounds like a science textbook, then suddenly drops the title word with a HUGELY processed, inhuman-sounding vocal, accompanied by mind-melting Moog and guitar swoops. This is another one of those moments that just knocked me back on my heels. Absolutely awesome.

As well as taking varying musical approaches, the album also showcases an assortment of themes. There are relationship songs, both positive and negative (“Madness”, “Follow Me”). There are quasi-political diss tracks (“Supremacy” and “Animals”, both of which feel totally relevant to the present moment.) There are pumped-up motivators (“Panic Station”, “Survival”) and despairing cries for help (“Explorers”, “Save Me”).

But it’s the two final tracks of the album that fascinate me the most thematically. They’re joined to each other, and to the album as a whole, by their invocation of the album’s title, “The 2nd Law.” The law in question is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of any isolated system always increases. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Order always devolves into chaos. “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” points out, in the most thrilling way, that “an economy based on endless growth is unsustainable.” “The 2nd Law: Isolated System” shifts the focus a bit, away from entropy and towards isolation.

Listening to this album on repeat let the songs shift around in my head until it started feeling like those two tracks open the curtain on the set rather than closing it, and once I started thinking about it that way, I became increasingly convinced that The 2nd Law is a sneaky concept album. Entropy is visible everywhere, in a bunch of different contexts. “Madness” depicts a relationship falling apart. A regime is about to topple in “Supremacy”. The whole planet (or is it another relationship?) spins into chaos in “Big Freeze” and “Explorers”. “Liquid State” and “Save Me” are the anguished cries of someone losing his own center, crumbling into nothing, “drowning in denial.”

But. There are two pieces to the second law. There’s the entropy, yes, but there’s also the isolation. Looking at “Liquid State” and “Save Me” from another angle, they are desperate attempts to break out of isolation, in order to reverse personal entropy. The narrators of these songs crave connection, and feel convinced that it is what will halt the disintegration of their lives. “Don’t let me go cause I’m nothing without you.” “Warm my heart tonight / And hold my head up high/ And help me to survive.” Seen from a different vantage, “Supremacy” is about the moral collapse of an isolated political system, about to be swept away by external forces.

Yes, this album says, things will continue to get worse in an isolated system, and that can’t be stopped unless you can break the isolation. That sobering message of impending destruction, and the glimmer of hope that comes along with it, are just what I needed to hear right now.

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