Muse

Simulation Theory

Warner Bros.

Nov 12, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Simulation theory, for anyone who hasn't seen The Matrix, is a theory that argues reality is a complex simulation so realistic it convinces its inhabitant that it's real. It is also exactly the sort of thing you would expect Muse to write an album about, as it allows them to indulge in camp sci-fi fantasy while keeping an air of intelligence. If you think Matt Bellamy and co. have gone a little OTT on this one, that's just our simulation glitching. 

This is how the progression of Muse from good-but-ridiculous band to just plain ridiculous comes full circle, with an album that attempts to capture the joy of a bad idea done well. Like a teenage boy wearing a Morphsuit, Simulation Theory is ridiculous by design and attempts to preempt its own failure. After a dour concept album, 2015's Drones, Muse ask us to laugh with, not at, them this time; all very convenient, when there's so much to laugh at.

"Algorithm" opens with Bellamy declaring war against our simulation's creator, but he may as well be declaring war against good taste. What follows is standard for recent Muse albumshalf-baked conspiracy theories, gaudy riffs, and disturbingly-stiff takes on R&B all feature. But a winking, ironic tone is ever-present in its Stranger Things-aping cover, its overtly-goofy music videos, and its kitschy '80s pop sheen.

The silliness of Simulation Theory isn't necessarily a problem. Silliness has been Muse's lifeblood since "Knights of Cydonia" became their signature song and much of their best work is also their most ridiculous (see: "United States of Eurasia" and "Survival"). What is disturbing is how cynical it feels.

In her landmark essay Notes on "Camp," Susan Sontag notes how camp (an aesthetic Muse have long-used and abused), relies on a sense of naivety and seriousness. In this way, you can argue Origin of Symmetry, Muse's breakthrough second album, was a camp classic of sorts. There was a clear earnestness to that album's use of classical music, theoretical physics, and its ill-fitting Nina Simone cover. Whether or not they knew what they were doing, Muse believed in their madness, achieving Sontag's essential element of camp: "a seriousness that fails" because it is too earnest, too overblown.

There is also a flipside that explains why not everything ridiculous can be camp, because any work that desperately wants to be camp is destined to fail. Simulation Theory would like you to believe it is as camp as Flash Gordon but it falls short of the mark. There's no fun to be had with the bland, robotic "Something Human," because you suspect that's probably the joke. The faux-Prince meets slide guitar of "Propaganda" plays with a sex-as-politics conceit that could be funny, if it wasn't for how obvious it is. And "Get Up and Fight" may be the most anodyne protest anthem in Muse's catalogueno easy featin which two indistinct characters must rise to defeat an unspecified enemy to achieve an unclear goal.

There are brief respites from the drudgery. "Thought Contagion" is a notable bright spot, if only because it realizes irony is more bearable when you stick a massive chorus in the middle of it. Other songs have moments of inspiration as well. "Pressure" squanders a surprisingly infectious glam rock stomp with an anti-climactic hook, while "The Dark Side" saves its meandering verses with a soaring chorusif only the two could meet.

Of course, debating the details of Simulation Theory is a pointless endeavor when it makes no effort to take itself seriously. More importantly, if the joke isn't on Muse on this album, does that mean it's ultimately on us? Because Simulation Theory feels almost designed to waste its listener's time. As art, it is immature and vacant. As fun, it barely registers. It's less of a step-up from Drones than a step sideways, if only because the self-parody here feels deliberate. At least no-one pays for music anymore, then the joke really would be on you. (www.simulationtheory.muse.mu)

Author rating: 3.5/10

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