The Resistance, by Muse
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
30 September 2009
Muse's new album is more than prog, and more than glancingly sciencefictional: it is intensely prog, and extremely sciencefictional. That's not to say it is a concept album, exactly. Although there is a narrative trajectory threading track 1 to track 11, it's of a loosely organized sort—the world is in a parlous state; a future war devastates things further; eventually humanity spreads from Earth to start again in the galaxy as a whole. This perhaps overgeneral storyline is focused by some intense personalizing of love in its redemptive mode. But that's not what makes this record so significant a piece of contemporary SF. Which is to say: it's not the content of the record but its form that is so memorable, and so memorably sciencefictional. It is the music, and the affect that music generates.
Affect is what music is especially good at, of course; but it is also what's behind the enduring appeal of SF. Ours is not, however much we like to boast about it, really a literature of ideas. Ours is a literature of a particular mood. Muse captures that mood splendidly on this album: a grandeur entirely shot-through with crassness; elevation and pretentiousness folded together; the outward urge as a manifestation of adolescent selfabsorption. It's not the whole of the genre, but it's a potent, absurd, endearing kind for all that.
The Resistance works much of its charm via pop-musical ambitions of scale—what we might call without stretching the phrase too far, a sense of wonder. It's what we expect from Muse, of course: the stadium dimensions of the performance, the Berlin-wall-of-sound production, the pomp and crescendo. There is a good deal of orchestral embroidering in the songs, all of reminiscent of film soundtracks rather than classical symphonies: the seven-league-boot orchestral arpeggios, up-up-up-up-up-up-up-down-down-down-down, that stomp all over "Exogenesis," for instance, are lifted directly from the Hollywood Composer's Sourcebook. This is, we might say, widescreen music: an album that channels Maurice Jarre as much as Rush's 2112.
What saves The Resistance from mere preposterousness—or, since the album often is preposterous, what redeems its preposterousness—is its campness. I can think of many prog albums that parse earnestness, classical-orchestral ambition and science fiction into rank absurdity. I can think of few that manage, as The Resistance certainly does, to harmonise high seriousness and sparkling kitsch; to leaven its melodrama with a kind of puppyish joy.
So, the first track, "Uprising," sees the band flicking the theramin switch on their synthesizer to play, cheekily but charmingly, a morphed version of the Doctor Who theme over a Glitter Band stompy rhythm. At 3:07 there's even a section of Cossack-style shouting of "hey!" over and over, which sounds much more like the Dandy Warhols than it does the Moscow State Choir. It's not just the musical quotations here that are so delightful: it's the way this bouncy music so contradicts the sourly nasal vocal line. The lyrics, incidentally, are rubbish: cheesy whingeing about how horrid the world is today, particularly ill-suited to the mouth of a twentysomething millionaire ("endless red tape to keep the truth confined . . . Take the power back, it's time that/The fat cats had a heart attack, you know that"). But here's the thing: this adolescent clunkiness distils, rather than undermines, the splendid emotional splurge of the whole. Isn't that one of the characteristics of a certain kind of SF, after all?
And this, in a nutshell, is the entire album. The title track, "Resistance" starts with some choral humming, skittery drumming and a plaintive piano line, over which Matt Bellamy starts a typical, minor-key Muse humpback melody line. But at 1:40 it suddenly goes all Queen: a burst of male harmony singing and multitracked guitar like "Bohemian Rhapsody" never left the Number One spot. Track 8, "I Belong to You," is what Muse would sound like should they decide to become a Scissor Sisters tribute act. Or about half the song is that: Matt Bellamy struggling with his inner Jake Shears until the track abruptly switches lanes into syrupy classical pastiche and essays a couplet from Saint-Saëns opera Samson and Delila, "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix: réponds à ma tendresse!" Bellamy gasps. That he sings "réponds" as "ree-pondz" is the cherry on the top of the naffness icing with which this track is lovingly, and I have to say deliciously, smothered.
Campest of all is "United States of Eurasia," a lengthy song that starts with a very slow, long-drawn-out, minor key crescendo pregnant with melodramatic intensity and portentiousness, whilst Bellamy sings about a grim future civil war in the titular mega-state. But then at 1:20 all that goes out the window, and we're jolted into another bout of Queenishess, the whole group chanting vibrantly that "there can be only one!"—as if inserting the Highlander movie into Nineteen Eighty-Four makes any kind of sense. From there on it's every man and woman for themselves, riding the stormy seas of Kitsch. When the boys chant the title of the song over and over, jocko-homo style, they make it sounds like "The United States of Erasure," which is at least hilariously un-Orwellian. To go from that not into a disco-synth version of "A Little Respect," but rather into a wholly unironic rendition of Chopin's E-flat major Nocturne [Op. 9, No.2] tops things off marvelously. The only thing that could improve this would be, I don't know, let me think, how about—the sound of happy children playing in the background of the piano piece, whilst the Jet-On-A-Bombing-Run soundeffect from Pink Floyd's The Final Cut roars in to finish things off. Which is exactly what the band provides.
All this monster build-up might threaten a monstrous anticlimax, but, impressively, the album's three-part conclusion, "Exogenesis," also manages to be its pièce de resistance: a song about, as its title might suggest, an exodus from planet earth that is also the genesis of a new culture. It's a piece of music that dials its mood organ to Lush, with side orders of Awe, Pomp and Faux-Classical, such that for much of its length it sounds like the soundtrack to a really expensive perfume ad. That doesn't mean it's classy, though. Classy really isn't the point here. The suite starts with a musical quotation from the Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado album, of all the unlikely sources. Then the overripe, sprawling orchestral accompaniment starts up—those up-the-stairs, down-the-stairs arpeggios—and Matt Bellamy's keening falsetto searches uncertainly among the higher notes for a melody line. "Who are we?" he sings, in a manner as far removed as conceivable from a crowd at a football match. Then, for good measure he adds: "where are we? When are we? Who are we? Who are we? Why? Why? Why?" Which last are questions of remarkable pertinence for this album. A grinding guitar chimes in with a minor-key tweak of Lara's theme from Zhivago. Part 1 segues into Part 2 with some more romantic Chopin-ish piano playing. The music swells again with Bellamy emoting desperately: "spread our code to the stars, you can rescue us all." Or else "spread our clones to the stars," I'm not sure. Part 3 begins with some more straight piano playing, somewhere between Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Richard Clayderman, and the lyrics get excited at the prospect of starting over again. That, of course, is one of SF's core dreams: not only a new hope, but also atonement for what has gone before ("It's our last chance to forgive ourselves"). It is all surprisingly affecting. Put it this way: the lump in my throat was not me in the process of throwing up.
It is, in other words, a thoroughly Muse-ish Muse album. As in the band's earlier releases, suffering is always troped as grandeur, and there is a shrieky focus on redemption, or, in the idiom Bellamy prefers, on absolution and atonement. There's a sense of something very large lifting up and flying away, which is what this band's fans love. What's new is precisely the science fiction; something implicit rather than explicit in the earlier albums, now gloriously foregrounded. Overall, the preposterousness of The Resistance is of the kind that endears rather than alienates. Tastefulness and restraint have no place here. This is Gold-lamé Age Science Fiction. And if I hip-hip, I expect you all to respond with a suitable, only three-quarters-ironic: hurrah.