‘Simulation Theory’ Expresses Nothing but Our Own 80s Nostalgia Fatigue
From the early days of Showbiz to their latest massive Drones tour, Muse has never been known for keeping things small. Throughout the years, the English band has systematically tried to turn their work into something bigger and bigger, multiplying concept albums and amplifying their sound with the aid of orchestras and other musicians to the point where their status as a trio could have been questioned. Simulation Theory is in appearance the logical follow-up to these years of development: all at once, it promises to be a look into the current political climate, an exploration of a complex philosophical hypothesis and joyful reminiscence of a decade that people seem to feel particularly nostalgic about lately. All of these themes in one album promised at the very least quite the ride; what appears during the album’s listen can therefore be fairly surprising. Paradoxically, the album’s ambition is what makes it feel deeply inconsequential. We were promised something new: what we get instead feels not only stale, but also tragically uninspired.
Bellamy’s lyrics have always been strange ones. They don’t rely often on imagery, and in fact could hardly be any more straightforward. He isn’t a poet, and in his approach he’s also no stranger to questionable/barely musical word choices — but in the context of most of Muse’s previous work, it didn’t really matter. I didn’t really care that the storytelling in ‘Reapers’ was subpar: it had great riffs, the rhythm perfectly translated the urgency that the lyrics sometimes had trouble evoking, the song twisted and changed just enough to keep us captivated through the six minutes song and give it a good replay factor. In summary, it didn’t really matter that Bellamy’s lyrical quality didn’t match his ambition, because the other aspects of the songs so often did. As the albums went on, more and more people started to criticize the band’s ventures into new genres; but even though their offerings certainly varied in quality, there was something to admire in Muse’s refusal to stick to what they had been told to do. It is when they were told to stay rock that they went pop, when they were told to keep it to the basics that they brought in orchestras. A relatively small-scale rebellion, sure; but a rebellion nonetheless.
It is exactly this past history that makes Simulation Theory all the more disappointing. The sound neither feels new nor is it a logical development from the past albums — we’ve definitely heard this before. The album sounds like the less likeable parts of The 2nd Law and the less inventive ones of Drones smashed together by a particularly irritating Stranger Things fan. If that doesn’t sound like something you want to listen to, that’s because it truly isn’t.
The 80s influence in the album’s sound is minimal, and most importantly of all, doesn’t feel sincere in the slightest. It doesn’t help make the story they’re telling any stronger. The album’s cover reminds of last year’s Ready Player One, and in many ways the two pieces are extremely similar in their way of treating their 80s influence as a sole aesthetic consideration at best, an artificial (and, to be real, extremely financially profitable) concern at worse.
Simulation Theory does thankfully have a few saving graces : 'Break It To Me' finds a fun balance between electro influences and heavy riffs while seeing Bellamy at his least forced vocally-wise, and 'Get Up and Fight' is an infinitely better version of Drones' 'Revolt’. Unfortunately, even these highlights mostly work because they remind us of the band’s previous superior efforts rather than because of any true originality. It is even more disappointing to realize that, compared to the rest of the album, this use of nostalgia remains actually somewhat imaginative. The worst of the album is in Bellamy’s semi-impersonation of Prince in ‘Propaganda’, which borders on the insulting and completely kills an otherwise fun hook. The album’s singles are also arguably the weakest ones of Muse’s repertoire, ‘Something Human’ certainly being the worst kind of earworm there is, instantly sticking to your brain before you have the time to wish you never heard it in the first place.
One can appreciate the effort that went into the music videos that accompanied the album and the will to create a real narrative and visual world around Simulation Theory’s concept — but in the end, what lacks is any sort of ambition in the album itself. Muse wanted to see bigger as always, but in doing so and focusing so much on the marketing, the tour (which, side note, does look batshit insane and which I am excited to attend despite my disliking of the album), the videos, and everything outside of the album, the music itself seemed to have become an afterthought. At its best, it is a slightly altered regurgitation of the best of past albums; at its worst it’s just half-baked semi-political lyrics in the most generic envelope you could imagine. As a defender of the band’s less liked albums, it is a bit disheartening to hear something that for once, I truly can’t defend. Of course, there is something fun in vibrant colour palettes and spectacular live shows, and these things have value too — but it is my hope that the trio soon realizes that without adequate musical material to support them in the first place, they will risk losing people that are here for a bit more than spectacle.