Nostalgic worship of late ‘80s and early ‘90s media has been incredibly prominent lately, whether it’s stemming from ‘80s blockbuster callbacks like “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) and “Ready Player One” (2018), or shows like “Riverdale” (2017) and “Stranger Things” (2016) tackling the small-town mystery genre that “Twin Peaks” (1990) pioneered. From one look at the cover, it’s immediately obvious that “Simulation Theory” is aiming to capitalize on this nostalgia as well, as the artwork looks like it was ripped straight from the poster of a cheesy ‘80s sci-fi film.
The new album from U.K. alt-rockers Muse, which was released on Nov. 9, is an exercise in maximalism to an almost unparalleled extent, with massive choruses and an instrumental palette reminiscent of an old James Cameron movie. Granted, Muse has never been a band that pushes the envelope; their early material, though often enjoyable, never successfully shook off its obvious Radiohead influence. Given Thom Yorke and co.’s previous forays into electronic music, it wasn’t exactly surprising to see Muse heading in this direction at the turn of the decade. However, “Simulation Theory” sounds less like Radiohead and more like Depeche Mode, although the album is missing the dark undertones that define that band and many of the other great artists in the synthpop canon.
“Algorithm” kicks off the album as a fairly by-the-numbers new wave song, and is a largely inoffensive opening track with solid synth leads and a respectable chorus. Singles “The Dark Side” and “Pressure” aren’t too bad either, although they do introduce the album’s trend of ridiculously over-the-top choruses.
For example, lead singer Matt Bellamy’s appalling Prince impression on “Propaganda” made me laugh out loud, and the slide guitars on this track don’t fit with the overly synthetic ambience of the album. It’s jarring to hear a technique so synonymous with blues music, especially since none of the songs on “Simulation Theory” have any of the raw sound that defines that genre. The track “Something Human” has a similarly strange acoustic guitar section, but the overall result is a marginal improvement over “Propaganda” because it has a better vocal melody. Though, I must admit that the line “You ate my soul just like a Death Eater” causes me pain every time I hear it.
“Thought Contagion” is one of the album’s more rock-focused tracks, but the anthemic “oh’s” and “ah’s” in the chorus are too reminiscent of Imagine Dragons. For an album that seems to be aiming to capitalize on ‘80s nostalgia, there are many mainstream pop cliches that kill any sense of immersion in that aesthetic. “Get Up and Fight” is a good example of this, as everything from the drumbeat to the quiet verse and explosive chorus screams modern alt-pop. The lyrics are super cliche as well, with lines like “I can’t do this thing without you / I’m lost in this without you.”
The arpeggiated synth lines in “Blockades” are sweet on the ears, and on the whole the song is the closest Muse gets to their early 2000s sound, which makes it a definite highlight. There aren’t any annoying vocal effects, and it proves that Bellamy can still give a good performance when he isn’t focusing entirely on making the most histrionic choruses imaginable.
Instrumentally, “Dig Down” sounds a lot like Muse’s massive hit “Madness,” which I highly doubt is a coincidence given that “Dig Down” was the album’s lead single. It’s an alright track, but without a catchy hook it doesn’t sound like the type of song that’ll be topping the charts.
Much like the opener “Algorithm,” closing track “The Void” is pretty innocuous. The instrumental actually sounds as if it could be from an ‘80s synthpop song, with pleasant, synthesized strings on the verses and an overall melancholy presentation. I wish more songs on the album were as subdued as this, because the difference in quality between this song and the rest of the tracks is like night and day.
In many ways, “Simulation Theory” is enjoyable in the same way that a movie like “Kung Fury” (2015) is: it’s so overblown and ridiculous that the sheer spectacle is something to behold. That in and of itself makes this album an improvement over Muse’s 2015 album “Drones,” which took itself too seriously despite not actually having anything meaningful to say. “Simulation Theory,” though, is still an absolute mess in terms of thoughtful songwriting and genuine artistic merit with corny lyrics and passe instrumentals. Additionally, certain songs aren’t enjoyable even in a quasi-ironic way, especially “Propaganda.”
Muse are still taking themselves too seriously here, but the main difference is that they sound like they aren’t, making music that’s ludicrous in spite of itself. It’s strange praise to give an artist, but it’s probably the best Muse is going to merit at this point. They still have talent, and while that manifests in certain points on tracks like “Blockades,” I’m doubtful it’ll ever rear its head for the length of an entire release again. “Simulation Theory” may be the best album Muse has released this decade, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s a career highlight.