To say that the world was a vastly different place when Muse released their career-changing third album would be a somewhat grandiose understatement. The spectre of 9/11 loomed over the geopolitical landscape, Roger Federer had only recently won Wimbledon for the first time, nobody knew what the hell an iPhone was and musically speaking, the world was pre-occupied with the remnants of nu-metal, The Strokes, and overly sincere singer-songwriter slop. It was a weird time. Muse themselves were, in many ways, also a very different band to the one we know today, free from the self-parody and criminally excessive sensibilities that would plague their later work. However, despite delivering the critically adored ‘Origin of Symmetry’ (still their finest record) two years prior, record label disputes meant the Teignmouth trio struggled to infiltrate the US market.
With Rich Costey back on production duties, it’s clear that with ‘Absolution’ the band were aiming for something bigger, more accessible and direct. This point was bludgeoned home with the arrival of single, ‘Time is Running Out’. A sleek, snaking pop rock anthem, custom built for stadiums, it finally saw them break through into the UK Top 10 but it’s perhaps best described as Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis did at the time as “a series of choruses welded together in quick succession, each more implausibly catchy than the last.” It was so successful in fact, that this basically became Muse’s default mode for the next decade, for better or worse.
This is probably where accusations of Muse being a bit “too much” originated, as much of the material here aims for something genuinely gigantic. Although, to their credit the trio got the balance mostly right. In fact, there’s certainly a case to be made that the album suffers when they do try to operate in a different mode and dial down the bombast. ‘The Small Print’ and ‘Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist’ for instance, feel both simultaneously fun, yet whimsical and inessential all at once, never really justifying their inclusion. Meanwhile, ‘Endlessly’ whiffs distinctly of filler and closer ‘Ruled by Secrecy’ with its ghostly keys and simmering menace is essentially a less compelling version of ‘Megalomania’. Matters are complicated further by the new addition of fan favourite and B-Side ‘Fury’ which, despite its sleazy Chris Wolstenholme riffs, employs a ploddingly dull chorus.
Occasionally, there is success when venturing into new territory as on the incredibly lush, orchestral balladry of ‘Blackout’. “Don’t grow up too fast / And don’t embrace the past” urges Matt Bellamy during one of his most impassioned vocal performances. It’s one of the few moments on the record where the band show genuine artistic restraint and this helps to build momentum again after a breathless cascade of anthems. It’s most definitely a highlight but also one that feels completely at odds with the scything gothic metal present throughout ‘Origin of Symmetry’.
As referenced before, the strength of ‘Absolution’ truly lies in its unabashed propensity for spectacle. Bellamy has never been afraid to follow his classical infatuations and the absurd decision to drop a miniature Rachmaninoff concerto in the middle of ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ proved to be an inspired one, highlighting a band full of confidence. The tone is set though by the aptly titled opener ‘Apocalypse Please’ and Dom Howard’s intense, spiralling drum fills. On the nose lyrical statements (“This is the end….OF THE WORLLLLD” anyone?) underscore heavy piano chords before their signature synthesiser arpeggios fill the soundstage in glorious fashion. ‘Hysteria’ remains a completely flawless moment in the band’s catalogue where all the song’s interlocking parts are working in simpatico, from the iconic sidewinding bass and propulsive drumming, to the melodic fretwork during its mountainous crescendo.
In terms of lyrical content, Muse mostly resort to vague generalities so it’s interesting the tightest narrative results in the most thrilling track of the entire record, with Bellamy using the titular ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ as an extremely effective, if simple metaphorical device to detail an abusive relationship. Anchored by a rhythm so relentless, by the time its detuned riff reaches the pre-chorus, everything sounds gleefully chaotic, as if on the verge of collapse. It’s no surprise they chose to close their Glastonbury headline set in 2004 with this. Attempts to recapture such energy have rendered mixed results – ‘Kill or Be Killed’ from last year’s otherwise limp effort ‘Will of the People’ immediately springs to mind – and it’s a shade to the band’s sound which has been sadly absent for too long.
It’s not a neatly constructed or unique package as the similarly titled edition of ‘Origin…’ released in 2021 – this is a remaster as opposed to a genuine remix – and the additional material is largely dispensable but the noticeably punchier, cleaner production is a welcome change. In truth, ‘Absolution’ occupies an interesting but difficult place in the band’s discography. Stuck in between their two greatest works, it struggles to compete with both. That being said, the record’s highs are still so irrefutable and impossible to overlook, even 20 years on. OTT? Yes. Boring? Not a chance.
Words: Luke Winstanley