It gets to a point with Muse where giving up seems like the only valid option. With bands of their size – as in legit stadium-fillers with all the money in the world at their disposal – going back to the sound that made them good in the first place without some hefty concessions is a total pipe dream, and that’s something this trio have typified with minimal hassle. While Drones was an intriguing return to harder rock at first, time has not been kind to it, both musically and lyrically, and that’s led to Muse arriving at something of a crossroads. They can either continue down that path and refine what they’d originally come up with, perhaps even re-welcoming those who’d previously lost interest down the road, or make the flip to pop where the safe bet lies; after all, The 2nd Law’s stock has only gone up over time, so what harm can it do? Well, judging by how telling the artwork juxtaposed with the sound of early singles is, it can do plenty, especially when the ‘80s aesthetic has been co-opted as a front for flimsy pop with none of the style or garish retro cool the cover clearly wants to convey. Still, this wouldn’t be a Muse album without some enormous plan to do something, and with yet another great focus on a dystopian society that draws some convenient parallels with our own, Simulation Theory is at least likely to be dense in the realm of talking points if nothing else.
But here’s the thing – it really, really doesn’t. Whatever opinions anyone has on either The 2nd Law or Drones, positive or negative, it’s at least possible to say that they go some way to furthering Muse’s canon and fleshing them out as a band; with Simulation Theory, between flimsy, underwritten pop songs and songs that just feel genuinely broken, it’s about the most ill-advised and least essential move that Muse could’ve made at this point. And that’s not only because this is bad on a musical level (which, for the record, it most certainly is), but because what could’ve been another Muse album based on a set of cosmic conspiracy theories to make it at least somewhat interesting, it’s the sort of narrative the goes down the route of rising up and standing against the corruptions of modern life that, in this case, barely feels like the skeleton of an idea. When the final four tracks of this eleven-song album are all roundabout ways of convincing the audience to stand up for what’s right, that’s scratching the surface of an idea that Muse could knock out in their sleep at this point. It barely gets better when circling back to Matt Bellamy as the central “protagonist” either, lost in a world of misleading information and fake news on Break It To Me, and sick of being force-fed the opinions of those who want to do more harm than good on Propaganda and Thought Contagion. It’s an admittedly workable scenario, though when it’s executed with about as much flair or intrigue as the previous description of those tracks, there’s hardly much there that can rise beyond basic word choice and a sense that, without any sort of compelling narrative details that could drive it forward, it hits the inevitable roadblock that comes when what is essentially the briefing for the story is passed off as the whole thing. At least a track like Something Human is a nice deviation, with Bellamy yearning to return home from touring and put the world on the back burner to be with his loved ones, but that’s one song and the effect it has on making the central idea any more robust is negligible at the very best.
At least Simulation Theory is better musically, but even that’s only when removed from the larger context of Muse’s work; compared to the opulent, towering scale that Muse have been capable of in the past – electronic or otherwise – this is a lot more hollow and scaled back, something that does them no favours on an album that continually wants to hit those high points, but falls at almost every hurdle put in its path. Get Up And Fight is possibly the most standard Muse track with an arena-rock chorus that’s playing for straight-up rock grandeur, but its inclusion feels perfunctory, not helped by guitar work that feels mostly like a watered-down rendition of what a track like Resistance did so much better. To be fair to Muse, they’re always at least competent at forging some kind of diversity (for better or worse), and Simulation Theory does eke out some moments of quality because of it. As a best case scenario, there’s The Dark Side with its glossy swathes of synths that come closest to an aural representation of the artwork, or the stomping glam-rock of Thought Contagion, both of which prove that, at a push, Muse can still give their songs some kick. On the other hand though, when they try and emulate Prince on Propaganda or God knows what else with the slapped clunks and synthsised turntable scratches on Break It To Me, it paints a far starker picture of a band who have no real clue where they’re going anymore, or even the most effective way to do it. It highlights just how little of Simulation Theory actually connects, from the gutless country-pop rollick of Something Human to the whirring clicks of Dig Down that have no real body or relation to anything else here. It’s a profoundly disjointed album, not helped by the wealth of sounds that never reach a suitable conclusion and just feel like extra dead weight that it can’t afford to have.
That’s not saying that Muse can’t withstand their own ludicrousness or how far they can fall off-base; they’ve done it multiple times in the past and they’re hardly going to stop now. But Simulation Theory feels like a few steps too many towards sheer incompetence, and a band simple looking to shovel out the quickest, easiest album they can without a second thought. They’ve certainly tried, that much is obvious – you don’t make an album this messy without having at least some ideas working their way through – but in past instances, disasters like this have usually been flashier and overblown to exorbitant proportions. Simulation Theory just has nothing going for it, and ends up as a stale, uninspired mess before it’s even finished playing.
For fans of: Imagine Dragons, Thirty Seconds To Mars, Gunship
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Simulation Theory’ by Muse is out now on Warner Bros. Records.