Is Muse overwrought? Brilliant? Pretentious? The world’s best band?
Yes. To all of those descriptions.
One of my favorite music-criticism quotes, and I’ve cited it before, is from the book 50 Worst Rock and Roll Records: “If U2 weren’t full of shit, they wouldn’t be as brilliant as they frequently are.”
After seeing Muse live in the Verizon Center, I can honestly say they aren’t quite as full of shit as U2. I love U2, and I think Bono should win multiple Nobel Peace Prizes. But yes, they lay it on a bit thick at times.
Muse is a little more vague than that. They’re not going to stumble upon some random piece of Americana and write a factually inaccurate song about Martin Luther King. They’re more likely to read something about corruption on Wall Street and write a more generalized tune like Uprising. And yes, there was something immensely satisfying about hearing Matthew Bellamy croon “It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack” just a few blocks from the Capitol.
Bellamy’s lyrics may be more abstract than Bono’s. But he wears his heart on the sleeve of his spiffy red jacket. He breaks into a falsetto with such power that he’s nearly a full-blown soprano. He swings his guitar around like he’s conducting an orchestra. He raises his fist in the air in between chords, sometimes in sync with blasts of smoke. He kneels as he sings and plays guitar. He spreads himself prone on the stage to reach the microphone to people in the front row.
And all of this would be asinine if not for one teeny little fact:
Matthew Bellamy is the world’s greatest rock star. Perhaps of any generation.
The guy can sing, in multiple ranges. The guy can play the hell out of a guitar, effortlessly tossing in technological gimmicks that neither sacrifice nor overshadow that musical sensibilities of fingers on strings.
Then he has that presence. Nothing seems phony. He wants you — yes, you, the dude sitting in the literal back row of Verizon Center with a bank of speakers blocking his view of bassist Chris Wolstenholme — to join his revolution. And he makes a convincing argument.
The musicianship and the showmanship go hand in hand. I can hack my way through the main riff of Uprising. I can’t play it with one hand hammering all the notes so I can gesture with my picking hand. I can do a halfway convincing take on Knights of Cydonia. I can’t do it while I’m swinging my guitar like a drum major leading a marching band.
I’ve been reading the book The Sports Gene, David Epstein’s thorough compendium of research proving that a large part of our diverse athletic ability is a byproduct of our diverse gene pool. Some people are, to take Springsteen wildly out of context, born to run. Those of us with short arms are never going to be basketball players. (He counts a mere two exceptions to the “short arm” rule: the massive Yao Ming and, bless his heart, former Dukie J.J. Redick.)
If anyone has a “Rock Gene,” it’s Bellamy. I’m sure he worked hard to learn his craft. I’m also sure 10,000 people could each spend 10,000 hours trying to learn the same thing, and they couldn’t even fake it.
As if he needed any more assistance in becoming The World’s Greatest Rock Star, he found the perfect bandmates. Chris Wolstenholme is a terrific bass player responsible for the Best Bass Riff Ever (Hysteria, as voted by MusicRadar.com), and he’s a convincing backup vocalist. He even took the lead vocal on his own starkly confessional song, Liquid State, about his struggles with alcohol. Dominic Howard looks more like a stand-up comic than a drummer, but he provides intelligent, powerful accents and grooves throughout. (There’s a fourth musician, Morgan Nicholls, who does most of his work on keyboards but occasionally picks up percussion instruments or a guitar.)
The stage show is overwhelming and occasionally obtrusive. The bank of speakers blocking me from seeing Wolstenholme in his usual spot was an annoyance, though he did move to other parts of the stage on occasion. Video screens ring the stage and pop up in a neat set of five triangles that could be stacked as a pyramid to envelop the band — in one fun bit, Bellamy tossed a still-ringing guitar out of that pyramid — or deployed in different configurations. The lights and lasers are first-rate, a little less random than what I’m used to seeing in shows by Rush, one of my childhood favorites and clearly a Muse influence.
I wish the sound was up to the standard of the visuals. Wolstenholme’s two classic bass lines, Hysteria and Panic Station, didn’t have the punch I was expecting. Perhaps that was because they were early in the show — by the time they hit Knights of Cydonia, the bass sounded a bit better. But still, Howard’s bass drum overpowered everything at times, and Bellamy’s vocals were often hard to hear when he was in his lower register.
But a Muse show is greater than the sum of its parts. Some songs that aren’t all that thrilling in their studio form are much more compelling live. The best example: Madness, which I’d viewed as little more than a cute experiment with a touchpad bass, was elevated into a gorgeous love song in a live setting. (A University of Chicago a capella group also takes it to new heights.)
The floor had no seats — fans stood, bounced, screamed, etc. Up in the back row, I could do none of those things. I could hardly speak. I was overwhelmed. And I was occasionally laughing at the clearly addled women approaching middle age who were trying to sway like hippies while their boyfriends sat.
The band, particularly Bellamy, is always pushing the limit of what a band can accomplish without becoming maudlin or veering into Spinal Tap territory. It’s a tough line to walk. Maybe their studio albums don’t walk it as well as their live shows.
But I’m enough of a student of music history to know greatness when I see it. And I’ve seen it. Muse is a great band that has to be seen live to be fully appreciated. And Bellamy is simply the greatest.