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“Headphones connect to iPhone / iPhone connected to internet / Connected to Google / Connected to government,” MIA raps on “The Message,” the intro track from his 2010 LP ΛΛΛYΛ (pronounced “Maya”). At the time, the provocative lyrics sounded ridiculous, carrying all the presumed legitimacy of a stoned Jon Stewart getting paranoid about the intricacies of a dollar bill. The sentiment was widely decried; in what stood then as his first negative review of the album Pitchfork, contributor Matthew Perpetua described “The Message” in particular as “a simplistic, paranoid rap that’s as rhetorically effective as someone in a dorm ranting that the CIA invented AIDS”
Corn mia was right. Suddenly, his seemingly corny feelings about government surveillance and the decadence of privacy were incredibly prescient. At worst, MIA was guilty of conjuring up a sociopolitical moment several years before it came to fruition — which is exactly the same position rock band Muse find themselves in right now. Over the past decade – specifically, during the eight years that Barack Obama served as President of the United States of America – Britain’s prog-rock heavyweights have operated as something akin to a modern rock take on QAnon, with lyrics that dive deep into anti-authoritarian sentiments and dystopian rants.
Right-wing commentator and sometimes conspiracy theory fanatic Glenn Beck notoriously considers himself a fan, and even if his policy and that of Matt Bellamy do not align perfectly (the latter described himself in The Guardian in 2012 as a “left libertarian” who is “slightly paranoid” and once considered himself a true 9/11), the mixed messaging embedded in Muse’s back catalog is sometimes uncomfortably similar to the radical fringe beliefs that currently dominate American politics. Laugh all you obviously want to album cover gracing the years 2015 Drone, but songs like “The Globalist” – which features lyrical reflections of forgotten men like “There’s no country left / To love and cherish his bond” – echo current political talking points several years before they took over the discourse.
As with so many British rock bands that debuted in the late 90s, the influence of Radiohead looms large in Muse’s discography. Their first two albums — 1999 Showbiz and 2001 follow-up Origin of symmetry – possessed the quivering angst of Thom Yorke & Co. Curvatures; to relate a small anecdote, I remember being passed a pair of headphones to me screaming a pirated copy of Origin of symmetry on a marching band trip with the recommendation, “They sound like Radiohead.” Such an approach might seem old-fashioned in 2018, but in 1999 Muse was right on time – arriving at the precise moment which, as cemented by the sharp turn represented by the 2000 landmark Child A, Radiohead wasn’t too interested in being “Radiohead” anymore.
Journalists and fans spent much of the early 2000s searching for a “new Radiohead”, appealing to everyone from Icelandic mystics Sigur Rós to sensitive British ballads Travis as potential candidates. But Muse emerged as the biggest commercial hit of the lot, deftly evoking the guitar-laden angst of Radiohead’s ’90s work for an audience left cold by the latter’s icy electronic diversions. As Muse’s music became denser, more progressive and melodically playful – encapsulating everything from skyscraper arena rock and lyrical tendencies of Queen to the resounding sound of EDM and chimerical orchestral grandeur – they retained Radiohead’s own dramatic dystopian tendencies towards Ok Computer, especially since this last act was directed more explicitly sensual and painful thematic routes.
As Radiohead’s music has grown more obtuse and subtle over the past decade, Muse have become a capable pop band alongside their political provocations. Their 2006 album Black holes and revelations counted as their real breakthrough with a wider audience, aided by the booming, U2-esque “Supermassive Black Hole”; on 2012 The 2nd law (arguably their strongest record to date), they delved deeper into electronic textures than ever before, collaborating with EDM band Nero and delivering a pleasingly sparse twist on commercial dubstep aggression with “Madness.”
More … than Drone, The 2nd law is perhaps Muse’s closest precursor to their eighth LP Simulation theory, slated for release this week; after a string of self-produced records, the band locked themselves in the studio with backstage pop heavyweights like Timbaland, Shellback (Ariana Grande, Britney Spears), Dr. Dre collaborator Mike Elizondo and radio rocker Rich Costy. Despite the rock riff that occasionally pops up on Simulation theory – the album’s newest single, “Pressure”, rocks with dirty guitars and handclaps much like Queens of the Stone Age – the record also finds Muse heading into synthetic territory and compatible with the streaming that presumed modern rock contemporaries Twenty One Plots built a name on.
“Propaganda” is built around a spare beat, an aggressive vocal sample of the song’s title serving as a sort of chorus; choppy tropical pop “Something Human” glides into wordless vocal sighs, while “Get Up and Fight” – the album’s closest harking back to Muse’s anthemic early days – alternates between a loaded chorus and the kind of tricky – hip-hop-inspired vocal sample that made Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” a radio staple. But more than the last musical direction taken by Muse, the thematic leaning of Simulation theory is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the album.
Much of the album is positively blanketed in the kind of retro-obsessed nostalgia that has taken hold of popular culture; the clip of “Something human” focuses on a man trying to render a VHS tape before turning into a werewolf, and the 80s cover art was designed by Kyle Lambert, the British visual artist whose work you might recognize the poster of stranger things. In a Billboard interview, Bellamy cited childhood memories of watching Teen Wolf and Back to the future while discussing the album’s focus on “virtual…and simulated reality,” before addressing a key truism about wider culture: “We’re past the point where it’s taboo to do something retro… there’s kind of a backlash where people sort of tune in to what’s going on because it’s too confusing and too complicated to understand. Thus, some people choose to revert to nostalgia, fantasy, and dreamlike states to escape reality.
It’s a strange time for Muse to willingly retreat to the comfort of nostalgia. Simulation theory is peppered with the sort of vague us vs. them language typical of the Muse catalogue, with talk of falling blockages and groupthink as poison; Bellamy himself called the driving ideological force behind the single “Dig Down” “[counteracting] the current negativity in the world”. But there is little that specifically reflects the anti-government pessimism that has characterized much of the band’s output over the past decade, at a time when said pessimism and pessimism are very much in vogue on both sides of the world. political alley.
It’s entirely possible that Muse’s recent course correction is a direct result of realizing how similar their past rhetoric is to that of extremist groups that many see as endangering our very way of life – but the issues that the band’s previous three albums have addressed, from the deepening global energy crisis to the mundane carnage of perpetual war, have only taken on greater significance in modern life. (The first installment of this alleged trilogy was called Resistance – you don’t get more accidentally prescient than that.) After years of essentially foreseeing the mass cultural calamity we’re currently mired in, Muse dropped her wonky crystal ball on Simulation theory for the kitsch comfort of a Magic 8-Ball – possessing all the warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgic familiarity, and none of the conviction of purpose.