December 9, 2023

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Muse: Will of the People Album Review

Generally speaking, Muse operate in three modes: “The government is trying to control me, but I won’t let them, because I love freedom”; “I am so horny that my gonads have leapt into my throat and started knocking against my larynx like a fleshy Newton’s cradle”; and “Alas!!!!!” They tend to do their best work in the libidinal register—think of the adrenal floods of “Hysteria” and “Bliss,” Chris Wolstenholme’s frenzied fingerwork, the twinned squeals of Matt Bellamy’s guitar and throat—but there are gems in all three. The UK band’s ninth album, Will of the People, samples unevenly from these readymade buckets. Bellamy has billed the LP as another concept album about a man sick of the dystopia in which he finds himself mired, so you might expect Will of the People to tilt heavily toward “the government.” Not so. In its bulk and at its core, this is an “alas” album: an assembly of songs that look out at the world, throw up their hands, and go sulking back to their room.

Will of the People starts out strongly in narrative mode. The title track calls for a populist revolution: Crowd vocals ring out against AC/DC guitar chords and a Gary Glitter stomp-whap, both compressed within an inch of their life, as Bellamy snarls at the big bad that he and his army are about to take down. On lead single “Compliance,” Bellamy switches roles from oppressed to oppressor, sounding out the words that might be uttered by a narcotic omnipotence, a cult of power that promises to blunt all suffering for the price of mindless obedience. Here, Muse lapse back into the neon hues of 2018’s retrofuturist outing Simulation Theory, setting palm-muted chords against snaking funk bass lines, shearing synth leads, and vocoder huffs copied and pasted from the Weeknd’s “Starboy.” So far, so good: Protagonist and antagonist square off atop a few mismatched, Xeroxed set pieces. By the time we arrive at the Queen homage “Liberation,” another song written from the perspective of the People and their Will, we almost have a story.

And then the concept deflates. From the lachrymose piano ballad “Ghosts (How Can I Move On)” (which at least gives us a glimpse into a parallel universe where Coldplay has a technically proficient singer) to the flimsy, pseudo-thrash embarrassments “Kill or Be Killed” and “Won’t Stand Down,” Muse drift into songs that sound, vaguely, about a relationship in tatters. In theory, it’s meaty enough subject matter, but a rock opera it does not make. Through the grief and anger of a fresh split, the band doubles down on the album’s arbitrary collage of musical styles; each song is a mosaic of references so far-flung and so thinly considered that Will of the People starts to feel like that scene in the new Space Jam where every character from every property is somehow there on the screen, cheering for basketball—a pop cultural slurry whipped up into a dizzying whirlpool.

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