Don’t get me wrong: Subtlety is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes Edith Wharton novels engrossing (or so somebody once told me) and The Wire the best show on television. I believe, though, that it has its time and its place-or rather, it has the time and place to give way to the grandiose. Enter Muse. Say what you will about Muse’s brand of Radiohead-dipped prog, but give the band members credit for self-awareness: Unlike, say, Oasis, they’ve learned that they have no business attempting to make a record that could ever be described as subtle, lean or even organic. Not only would such a record be terrible, it would also be impossible. Muse is at its best when it throws in the kitchen sink, and on Black Holes and Revelations, the band’s fourth proper full-length, the basin and faucet go flying more than once.
Preposterous by design, Black Holes and Revelations contains the kind of histrionics we’ve all come to expect from Muse-guitar arpeggios, electronic flourishes, celestial imagery and vocalist Matthew Bellamy’s falsetto are all in gleeful abundance here. The album has enough geekiness to make its predecessor, 2004’s Absolution look positively mainstream. That the members of Muse seem to take themselves pretty seriously should be fairly disturbing, but somehow-and this is as great a testament to Muse’s talent as any-it comes off as endearing; not many bands, for instance, could come close to pulling off a song as earnest as “Invincible.”
To be honest, there is a lot to dismiss here (“Exo-politics,” for instance), and if there is such a thing as a bad good record, this is it. Given the “us versus them” conceit featured in nearly every song, I’d also have to guess that Black Holes and Revelations is some kind of protest record, and even though the subjects of its protests might be obvious given recent events, those subjects are never really explored in any of the songs. It’s just as well, I guess; to see Muse get bogged down in those kinds of specifics would be nothing short of painful.
Muse albums, though, are best appreciated from the top down, and Black Holes and Revelations contains its share of heavy-hitters. The keyboard-sprinkled “Starlight” provides the dose of Coldplay-inspired fare that’s seemingly a requisite for commercially viable rock music these days, yet it contains the kind urgency and flair that Chris Martin and company haven’t quite been able to muster. We also have “Map of the Problematique,” which with its rave-ready beats is the best song Muse has ever done. The album concludes with the ludicrous, awesome “Knights of Cydonia,” which features both whinnying and hoof beats (that’s not a joke) and clocks in at more than six minutes. It’s the ultimate exercise in melodrama, and it’s fantastic.
Muse is nothing if not distinctive, and Black Holes and Revelations is very much distinctively Muse: fantastic at points and ridiculous at others, without much in between. It would seem to make sense that an album can only be as good as its weakest songs, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. Greatness is greatness, and the strength of three or four highly memorable songs (some of the best of 2006) can easily make a few missteps disappear.