I went to London in 2005 on a study abroad program. One of the courses I took was about British music, and we were required to select an artist to do a presentation on. One of my classmates chose to talk about Muse. I wasn’t familiar with them beyond “Hysteria”, which I thought was a really good update of Bends-era Radiohead, and she started her presentation by insisting that Muse were not Radiohead and didn’t sound anything like them, and that she was sick of people comparing the two and that it needed to stop. I imagined meeting Muse’s Matthew Bellamy out somewhere:
“Hey, I think your band sounds like one of the greatest rock albums in history.”
“Oh yeah? Go to hell, we’re different!”
She went on to tell us the usual things you tell people in presentations but that opening salvo stuck with me and I’ve thought about it a lot since then, mainly what it says about us as enthusiasts and connoisseurs and how perception is easily compromised when it comes to the things we hold closest to our hearts.
I enjoy Muse. I especially enjoyed Black Holes and Revelations, where they stretched out (as the saying goes) and in “Supermassive Black Hole” crafted the best glam song in the past twenty-five years. Maybe ever. So when word on the street hit that Muse had made a concept album, not only was I completely uninterested, I was more than a little disgusted by the thought: “concept album” carries an overwhelmingly negative connotation with it of brigades of willowy Samson-haired dudes hauling us on an 80-minute slog through fantasy lands filled with poorly-constructed archetypes and flute solos. Beyond that, it’s a useless term that tells me nothing about the music itself except that it aims to be more cohesive than a typical 10-12 song collection, which is not cohesive at all.
That being said, let’s run down all the reasons why Drones should not be any good: it’s a concept album, it was made by a band going into their third decade together, it was produced by Mutt Lange…did I mention it’s a concept album about a man becoming a drone in a repressive society and then breaking free from that droneage?
Anyway, Drones isn’t a concept album. It’s better than that. It’s a space opera, and a good one too, something Queen (feat. Brandon Flowers) might have done for the soundtrack of Jupiter Ascending. The reason it works is because Muse don’t have the kind of leeway we gave to artists in the 70s. They can’t make a triple album full of 20-minute songs and expect anyone to want to listen to it. So they’ve taken an epic idea and trimmed it down to fit. Maybe you lose a sense of scale, but you’re also never left thinking “how much longer is this song?”
The one indulgence, “The Globalist,” is at the end and that’s fine. We need a good solid ending even if it starts out bizarrely with cowboy whistling like A Fistful of Martian Dollars, segues into a nice downtempo number with a floating vocal that could have been delivered by a cyborg Morrissey, and ends with — I shit you not — a straight-up friggin’ madrigal.
I mean that quite literally. Hand it to a music theory student and let them tear it apart and put it back together again because Bellamy et al. have done their homework and Palestrina would be proud. I have to admit I thought it was stupid as hell at first, but you know what? It’s a damn good madrigal and we just don’t get those anymore. And even if it does end on the squarest of cadences, a plagal “Amen,” when is the last plagal “Amen” we’ve had in popular music? Hundreds of years, easy.
As everything winds down, our hero falls back to Earth with a quiet coda:
There’s no country left
To love and cherish, it’s gone
It’s gone for good
It’s just theatrical enough to plant the image of a large cast on a star-speckled stage in your head without descending into Broadway hell. It’s in keeping with the spirit of moderation throughout the rest of Drones. Yes, Muse being moderate still means plenty of agitation, just not too much. You hear just enough Styx to remind you of Styx, and then it’s gone and you don’t have to think about Styx anymore.
Drones is very good despite the fact that it must exist as a concept album, and I mean that as an endearment. I still think of Muse as Bends-era Radiohead—again, fondly so, since no other artist I can think of has been able to replicate and expand on that sound the way Muse have. But now I can also think of them as cyberglam captains roaring off into space to save a guy from being a drone or whatever.