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‘The 2nd Law’: Behind Muse’s Thermodynamic Sixth Album
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘The 2nd Law’: Behind Muse’s Thermodynamic Sixth Album

Amid the gloom of the banking crisis and the jubilation of the London 2012 Olympics, Muse’s sixth album, ‘The 2nd Law’, saw them go for gold.

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With the seemingly inevitable global energy crisis heavy on his mind, Muse frontman Matt Bellamy initially set to work on his group’s sixth album with band members Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dominic Howard (drums) in late 2011. Finding themselves working well into 2012, it had been nearly three years since the release of the band’s previous album, The Resistance, but Bellamy felt the world had changed for the worse. Troubled by the political fallout of The Great Recession and media doom-mongers threatening economic collapse, Bellamy dished up a new collection of songs with all the zeal of a crazed conspiracy theorist. Augmenting Bellamy’s paranoid pariah status with esoteric scientific theories to address the world’s ills, the resulting album, The 2nd Law, would find Muse at their most musically ambitious.

Listen to ‘The 2nd Law’ here.

Recording in AIR Studios, in London, and EastWest, in Los Angeles, the group diversified their sound more than ever before, with Matt Bellamy throwing some misdirection at music journalists by describing Muse’s new album as a “Christian gangsta-rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face-melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”. Though he was clearly joking, it is true to say that The 2nd Law offered fans something very different, mixing the alt-rock bombast that had placed Muse among the best 2000s musicians with electronic influences courtesy of Bellamy’s newly-purchased Kitara synth-guitar. Like cowboys riding into the heart of the Wild West, Muse were back on the horse and ready to conquer the world again.

“It’s a proper Muse song, it’s not something we just did for the Olympics”

As the Olympic Games were set to be hosted in London later that summer, Muse were granted the honour of creating an official song to mark the occasion. The brilliantly bombastic result, Survival, was released as a single in June 2012, surprising listeners as it builds from a jaunty piano riff, accompanied with operatic backing singers, before exploding into an over-the-top rocker as if sung by an athlete with a lust for victory (“Race, life’s a race/That I’m gonna win”). Charting at No.22 in the UK, Survival fired the starting gun on the band’s sprint towards their next album.

Full of uptempo pomposity and Matt Bellamy’s gold-star falsetto, Survival made Dominic Howard particularly proud. “I’m happy with the song. It’s a proper Muse song,” he told NME. “It’s not something we just did for the Olympics.” Speaking of the song’s deeper meaning, Matt Bellamy described Survival as “getting into the brutality of what that is, to survive against whatever, what it is that drives us to fight, what drives us to want to evolve and grow forward”.

Keen to explore themes of human struggle and other big-question ideas more than ever, Muse revealed the artwork for The 2nd Law in late July. With peculiar tendrils splayed like a neon-coloured jellyfish, the cover was a photograph of the neurological circuitry of the human brain taken by The Human Connectome Project. If that didn’t get Muse fans’ synapses firing, nothing would.

“I got interested in reading a bit about energy, reading a bit about how it works”

It didn’t take long for fans to discover that the album’s title was a reference to the second law of thermodynamics. Inspired by watching Wonders Of The Universe, a TV show hosted by the English physicist Professor Brian Cox. Bellamy had latched onto the idea of the inevitability of energy depletion. “I got interested in reading a bit about energy, reading a bit about how it works,” the singer said. Weaving this idea into his songs while tackling modern-day political themes of economic inflation and societal collapse, the second law itself would prove to be the album’s conceptual foundation stone.

Already giving hints to interviewers that electronic music had influenced the album’s sound, it wasn’t a surprise to hear that The 2nd Law’s second single, Madness, boasted a throbbing bass line beloved of dubstep DJs, albeit with a floating melody that drifted in a more 80s-pop-inspired direction. “The big influence on me for that was Prince,” Bellamy later admitted, “that was what I was trying to go for.” Released in August 2012, Madness peaked at No.25 in the UK and made a particularly strong impression on Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who tweeted that it was Muse’s “best song ever”.

The 2nd Law itself was finally released and on 28 September 2012, and debuted at No.2 on the Billboard 200, becoming the band’s highest-charting album in the US at that time. With songs that saw Muse flex their prog-inspired ambitions and refresh their sound with dubstep touches courtesy of DJs Skrillex and Nero, The 2nd Law not only contained some of Bellamy’s most personal songwriting to date, but it also marked the first time bassist Chris Wolstenholme sang lead vocals on a couple of tracks (Save Me, Liquid State). Immediately meeting with critical acclaim, the next step was to unpick what it all meant…

“Every time I watched the news, it was endless stuff about the Euro banking crisis”

At the time of the album’s release, the UK was going through a long-protracted recession, exacerbated by the banking crisis and with civil discontent marked by the 2011 London riots. Far removed from the idyllic nation of equals presented in Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, Matt Bellamy was disillusioned with the state of the modern world. “Every time I watched the news when we were making the album,” the singer said, “it was endless stuff about the Euro banking crisis.”

Kicking off with Supremacy, a string-laden reflection on the fantasy of individual freedom set to the swells of a James Bond-esque melody, Bellamy launches into a riff-heavy attack on the one per cent (“You don’t have long/I am onto you”). Released as a single in February 2013, it was a brazen way to set out Bellamy’s embittered worldview, wagging a much-needed finger at the super-rich elites that had brought the world to the brink of collapse.

Elsewhere, the jazzy 5/4 time signature of Animals ebbs and flows beautifully while doubling as a thinly-veiled attack on former CEO of RBS, Fred Goodwin, decrying those who “bend more rules, and buy yourself an island”. On the masterful ballad Explorers, the empty spoils of the age of conquest are put under Bellamy’s microscope (“This planet’s overrun/There’s nothing left for you or for me”), with lyrics placing faith in Helium-3 as a potential solution to the world’s impending energy crisis.

“The mosh pit has moved away from guitars altogether and gone towards the laptop”

Despite the political pessimism in much of his songs, Matt Bellamy’s world-weariness is tempered somewhat by his experience of becoming a father. Venturing into far more personal territory while dabbling in a floor-shaking dubstep-inspired drop, Follow Me sees the singer poignantly address his newborn son, Bingham (“You can follow me/And I, I will not desert you now”). Co-produced with EDM producer Nero, the song contains an iPhone recording of Bingham’s heartbeat and was released as The 2nd Law’s third single, in December 2012.

Though the electronic influences on The 2nd Law have perhaps been overstated – it is, after all, still a rock album – the album’s penultimate, Hans Zimmer-esque track, The 2nd Law: Unsustainable, remains the furthest Muse have ever drifted into fully-fledged electronica. Initially set to orchestral backing, a female newsreader hurls us into a dubstep breakdown reminiscent of Skrillex’s Bangarang. “The mosh pit has moved from guitars and gone towards the laptop,” Bellamy later said, expressing his desire to experiment with new sounds.

With a haunting Exorcist-like piano theme, album closer The 2nd Law: Isolated System also contains news soundbites commenting on the rate of inflation. “The end of the album is supposed to be the ultimate collapse of it all, the cooling-down process,” Bellamy said. This fits the lyrical concepts Bellamy has been wrestling with throughout the album – that the second law of thermodynamics means that an economy built on an endless pursuit of growth is doomed to fail, and entropy is inevitable.

“It’s the noise of humanity on a tiny planet in the middle of nothing”

Despite its very serious subject matter, there is much fun to be had on The 2nd Law. The fifth single to be released from the album, in May 2013, was Panic Station, a catchy dalliance with funk-rock, with a touch of Prince-inspired pop thrown in. “Doing a funk track was for us remembering stuff like Rush, Primus, the more slap-bass things we liked,” Bellamy said. “Definitely a bit of 80s in there, for sure.”

For all of its bleak social critiques and Bellamy’s untrammelled tubthumping, The 2nd Law was a timely diatribe that struck while the iron was hot, going on to sell 1.6 million copies worldwide. “It’s the noise of humanity on a tiny planet in the middle of nothing,” Bellamy said of the album’s concept, and fans agreed. Both intelligent and enthralling, The 2nd Law was extravagant social commentary done in Muse’s own unique fashion.

By moving the band in a more electronic-oriented direction while staying true to their love of heavy rock grandiosity, the album expertly re-positioned Muse as one of the best bands in the world ahead of their Unsustainable Tour, which kicked off in the summer of 2013. Setting the stage for Muse’s largest run of stadium shows to date, The 2nd Law might have seemed like a law unto itself, but, as always, Muse were writing all the rules.

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