By Alex Wignall
Muse have stepped into the studio to record their seventh studio LP – it needs to be their best yet. Rewind the clock to five past ten on June, 17th 2007 – Matt Bellamy and co. are exiting the stage at the highest point of their career to date. They’ve just conquered a sold-out Wembley Stadium with two incendiary performances that have cemented their place as the best live act in Britain if not the world. It’s the spectacular culmination of a journey which has seen three boys from Devon transform from awkward oddballs to awe-inspiring rock gods.
It’s not hard to imagine what the Muse camp must have been thinking as they slinked out of Wembley Stadium that night – how the fuck can we top this?
The problem for Muse post-2007 is that their Wembley triumph is a feat which increasingly appears impossible to top. When Muse dropped The Resistance in 2009 it left many disappointed. Was it a bad album? No, not really. In some ways it was the musical equivalent of David Moyes’ ill-fated reign at Old Trafford. Just as Moyes had to follow an all-conquering Scotsman with seemingly time-lord-esque powers, The Resistance followed a trio of Muse albums, any one of which could have been the defining album of many other bands’ entire career.
Suggesting The Resistance was a flop would be ridiculous. The album scaled the heights to hit number one in 20 countries and led to another bout of stunning live shows ending with a triumphant Glastonbury headline set in 2010. Nevertheless, questions were starting to be asked about Muse’s stadium rock pretensions that hadn’t been asked before. Wasn’t it all a bit Queen? Was United States of Eurasia actually a bit shit? (Yes).
Fast forward to 2012 and the release of their incomprehensibly eclectic sixth studio album The 2nd Law. Suddenly Muse sounded like a band who didn’t know where to go. Perhaps weary of writing stadium-swelling anthems, they tried their hand at everything. Dodgy dubstep – check. Ultra-camp funk – check. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme taking over the role of front man for a couple of songs – why not! Muse have always made a point of moving their music forward, and it’s worked to great effect in the past, especially on Black Holes and Revelations, but large parts of The 2nd Law sounded like a band without an identity.
Again, its hard to be too critical of The 2nd Law, another number one album which led to the band’s first extensive European stadium tour, but there is a very real sense now that Muse aren’t as good as they once were. Their decline has not been dramatic. They haven’t dropped any horrendous clangers, although they tried their hardest with ‘Survival’ – their overwrought effort for the London 2012 Olympics. Instead, Muse have slowly drifted away from their status as Britain’s most exciting rock group. ‘Panic Station’ was the first Muse single not be play-listed by Radio One in a decade, a decision which led Radio One’s music policy director Nigel Harding to claim the band were at a crossroads. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
If Muse are to halt their slide and ensure their best days are ahead of them, their next album needs to be their best yet. The word from Matt Bellamy is that Muse want to return to their roots and bring back the riffs. There is talk of a first single by Christmas and an album release in the summer of 2015. Doubtless that is what many Muse fans want to hear, but as the band embark on recording their seventh LP, the pressure to really deliver is more acute than ever before. Another so-so album and Muse will look increasingly like dinosaurs. Those who didn’t experience Muse at their pomp in the mid 2000s will begin to wonder, in increasing numbers, what all the fuss is about. The announcement of Muse at the top of festival bills won’t excite festival goers in the way it used to. Instead, they’ll joke that 2008 wants its headliner back.
Right now, Muse are in the last chance saloon. If they want to remain rock royalty, they have to deliver on album number seven.