Muse exist in a perpetual 1999, where the techno-apocalyptic tone and shiny black imagery of The Matrix reign supreme. Look at the song titles of their 2012 album, The 2nd Law: “Supremacy,” “Panic Station,” “Survival,” “Explorers,” “Save Me.” There’s no room for interpretation, and no need for it either. Muse make music about big, menacing things and sing about summoning the will to survive them. This can take the form of out-and-out science-fiction concept-album Armageddon, or in the case of their excellent slow-burn single “Madness,” high-stakes emotional conflict within a relationship. Either way, it’s music that recasts life as a child’s sci-fi fantasy, a sexless summer-blockbuster adventure in which lone warriors stand together against some Dark Lord. And I’d call you a liar to your face if you said you never pictured your own life in those terms at least once.
That explains why their best songs — and “Madness” is right up there, along with “Our Time Is Running Out” and “Invincible” and “Uprising” and especially “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Starlight” — hit with hurricane force. If you’ve got it in you to enjoy a Marvel or Harry Potter or Star Wars movie, that’s what Muse offers in musical form. The feeling their records evoke is familiar from those experiences at least as much as from the big bands they’re constantly accused of swiping from, most notably Queen and Radiohead. And when they funnel that feeling through a soaring chorus or a catchy hook or a good groove, Muse are irresistible.
But how did they arrive at this vibe in the first place? The lyrics and imagery, the bombast of the music, the fever pitch of every sentiment, the phrasing of the vocals, the specific musical reference points — why were these elements assembled in precisely this way? The answer is singer, lyricist, songwriter, and front man Matthew Bellamy’s voice. All of Muse’s components were selected because they were best suited to the size, scope, and intensity of the sounds Bellamy’s pipes produce. Muse is a custom car built to transport his voice from the band to their listeners. It’s a Matthew Bellamy’s Voice Delivery Mechanism, for better and for worse.
For someone with six studio albums under his belt, Bellamy is still a spotty songwriter. His vocal lines often rely on plodding, hookless phrasing decorated with unnecessary half-notes that draw out each syllable regardless of context. It’s a great way to luxuriate in his voice, sure, but an ineffective way to create any sense of pacing, momentum, melody, or surprise. You know that saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Bellamy’s voice is freaking Mjölnir.
As for the songs themselves, he’s at least as likely to simply cast his line into the murky waters of rock history and pull out any sound suitably big enough to contain his voice as he is to forge his own path. This is why the “Radiohead forms a Queen cover band” comparisons persist even now, long after Bellamy shed the Thom Yorke sound-alike tendencies that were so uncanny as recently as their 2003 album Absolution. The theatrical pomp of Mercury and May and the towering pre-millennial angst anthems of pre-Amnesiac Radiohead are among the few foundations capable of supporting the weight of Bellamy’s voice. It’s easier to rest on them than it is to build something brand new.
This on-the-shoulders-of-giants approach is apparent on The 2nd Law on an almost song-by-song basis. “Supremacy” is a James Bond theme song right down to 007’s trademark four-note leitmotif. “Panic Station” is a pastiche of the big, loud British pop-funk of the ’80s. “Survival” combines the power-of-positive-thinking lyrics of Queen at their stadium-rock biggest with the faux-operatic booming of Mike Patton in Faith No More’s heyday. Multiple U2 homages make an appearance; slinky Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop-era electronica on “Madness,” Joshua Tree Bono vox on “Follow Me,” with lifts from his hollering on “With or Without You” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” so flagrant they could be samples. “Save Me,” a ballad from bassist Christopher Wolstenholme, could be plopped down on a record by Muse’s fellow post-Radiohead album-rock standard bearers Doves and no one would be the wiser, while “Animals” hearkens back to the tinkling and swirling and chiming of the masters themselves on tracks like “Morning Bell.” And, of course, there’s dubstep now, subtly present on “Madness,” much less subtly on “Follow Me” and “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable.” And on and on it goes.
But there’s a rich tradition of “legacy superheroes” — successors to or revamped versions of previously established heroes that share elements of their powers and play off their strengths while bringing the concept up to speed for the present day. Think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Just like Batman, he’s an orphan, a gifted detective, a skilled physical fighter, a devoted son of Gotham City, and an embittered idealist who knows he can’t change the system from within. He realizes in the end that the best way to harness those innate qualities is just to slip inside the Batcave and work with what he finds. This is the best way to understand what Muse is doing. Don’t think of them as shameless thieves or schlockmeisters, but instead as a band whose lead singer’s Batsignal of a voice destined them to bear the mantle of music that, when it all comes together, makes you feel like a superhero. They’re not the heroes we deserve, but the ones a whole lot of us need right now.
Sean T. Collins writes about TV, comics, music, and other things for Rolling Stone, The Comics Journal, BuzzFeed, and other places. He writes comics too.