Muse remain the ultimate acquired taste. Bombastic, over-dramatic and often progressive in style, listeners usually decide to hate them with a passion, or pronounce them the greatest thing in the history of the world. Absolution is their third studio album, and while it's clear it will appear to more people (It seems to shed Origin Of Symmetry's raw edge), there is no sign that Muse are about to settle down and become complacent. Even if you do hate them.
Absolution's general theme is that the world is going to end and we are all going to die. This is reflected on the opening power-surge of "Apocalypse Please", with its driving, almost military drums, and panicking cries of "This Is The End/The End/Of The World". "Apocalypse Please" won't have done much to convince you otherwise if you thought Muse were a tad over-the-top before, but, if the rest of the album is anything to go by, Muse, or at least enigmatic frontman Bellamy, seem perfectly happy to be seen as eccentrics.
The next track comes in the form of the album's most hook-laden track; "Time Is Running Out". A brilliantly catchy pop-rock track, with a bassline to die for, it doesn't break any new ground, for sure, but if it doesn't stick in your head for the next week or two, there's something wrong with you.
This is followed by the magnificent "Sing For Absolution". This sweeping mini-epic is both beautiful and tragic, and marks a real songwriting development from the band who once rhymed "Happening Soon" with "My Direction".
Next up is "Stockholm Syndrome". This is one of Muse's heaviest tracks, an out-and-out rock track that screams panic, desertion and loneliness like Thom Yorke on speed. Again, you will love it, or loathe it with a passion. The falsetto will either drive you to kill or transport you to someplace else. We're sure Muse would be happy with either.
After the explosive outro to Stockholm Syndrome, an acoustic track turns up to politely put all the pieces back together, in the form of "Falling Away With You". The beautiful simplicity of this track's introduction, with Bellamy's soft and saddened vocals over a simple acoustic guitar allows listeners to catch their breath before a typically Muse bridge leads to plenty of distortion and a bellowing chorus. It isn't the greatest track on the album, but serves as a nice breather before the next track hits you.
There's a brief electric interlude before the pumping and aggressive bassline of the shallow but wholly enjoyable "Hysteria" comes crashing down on you. It's heavy, it's loud and it knows it's got no substance ("I want it now/I want it now/Give Me Your Heart And Your Soul") but if this doesn't get you moving, nothing else on this album will.
As with the "Stockholm Syndrome"/"Falling Away With You" contrast, "Hysteria" is followed by "Blackout". A slowly-building and simmering track, this showcases Bellamy's vocals at their finest, and his songwriting at it's most sensitive, "This Life's Too Good To Last/And I'm Too Old To Dream".
The true highlight of the album is to be found in the next track; "Butterflies and Hurricanes" is the epitome of everything Muse are about. It's five minutes long. It's got a huge classical piano solo for a bridge midway through. It's absolutely ridiculous. But it's also incredible listening. You can't deny that Bellamy, Wolstenholme and Howard are three of the finest musicians of the 21st century, and this song, with its hopeful, simple and powerful message "You've got to change the world/And Use This Chance To Be Heard/ Your Time Is Now" could be applied to Muse themselves, now standing on the edge of huge success or to anyone who's ever felt downtrodden. It takes a few listens to appreciate just how much there is going on in this track, but it's most certainly the best thing Muse have done, even surpassing "Citizen Erased", Origin Of Symmetry's most memorable track.
Of course, with such an incredible centre-piece, one would expect Muse to stumble and lose this momentum for the rest of the album. Not so. "The Smallprint" is an aggressive burst of well-refined punk power that sees Bellamy almost spit his lyrics over a chunky bass line and roaring guitar riff. In the most polite, Devon-raised way, of course. This is followed by arguably the album's weakest track, "Endlessly", a simple, electronica-inspired love song which, while good in its own right, feels rather out of place in the context of Absolution. Muse should be applauded for trying something different, but, at 14 tracks long, Absolution really doesn't need any filler.
The closing two tracks seem well coupled. "Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist" returns to the guitar-led paranoia, "It scares the hell out of me/ When the end is all I can see" with an excellent sense of rhythm and driving pace. "Ruled By Secrecy" is a - whisper it - Radiohead-style tale of Government oppression, mundane working conditions and piano-led crooning. It's all pretty haunting stuff, and the moment where the piano hits its climax is particularly powerful.
When all's said and done, Muse have made an epic record. It's a rollercoaster of human emotion. It's equal parts loud and proud, equal parts sensitive and vulnerable. It is the end of the world, and a celebration of life on one flat, blue disk. It's a brilliant record. At times the scale of it is simply staggering. The thought that this was the brainchild of three incredibly talented Brits is something to be very proud of. Sure, it's not a perfect record. But Muse really can only go onto bigger, better, and perhaps sillier things from here.
Whether you choose to celebrate or loathe them for it is totally up to you.