Look to the Stars: Musings on 20 Years of ‘Absolution’

Illustration by Lauren Luchs

Content Warning: Death

“Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations”

– Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday  


Even the most stalwart of their fans would struggle to deny the accusation that Muse take themselves a fraction too seriously. In lyrical content as in musical composition, the band tends towards extremes—operatic bombast, revolutionary overtures, futuristic spacescapes—with little room for irony or apparent self-awareness. Yet sincerity is no vice of its own accord; some things, after all, are worth engaging with earnestly. 

Two decades ago, Muse released Absolution to general acclaim. Tracks such as ‘Time Is Running Out’ and ‘Hysteria’ still rank amongst their biggest and most recognisable hits. The former speaks to the nagging suspicion that beneath the veneer of normalcy, something is fundamentally wrong with our world; wanting to “break this spell”, while resisting the impulse to repress and “bury it… smother it… murder it”. This act of schism exacts a heavy toll, however—those “breaking out, escaping now”, as ‘Hysteria’ warns, are left “feeling [their] faith erode” in the structures which once offered assurance and guidance. The same voice is echoed on ‘Falling Away with You’, as relinquishing illusions (“watching the fantasies decay”) demands an irrevocable loss of innocence (“all of the love we’ve left behind… memories I will never find”).

It is this existential quandary that underpins the entire record: the burden of freedom, the riddle of a life adrift from old certainties, and the fear of an unknown future. It lends Absolution a darker, grittier feel than some of the band’s subsequent releases such as ‘The 2nd Law’ and ‘The Resistance’—something which they’ve arguably sought to recapture more recently with ‘Drones and ‘Will of The People’. Neither quite manages the subtle interplay of ideas and emotions achieved in 2003. ‘Sing for Absolution’, by way of illustration, is both a plaintive cry for deliverance—seeking “a starlight in the gloom”—and a defiant repudiation of such an infantile plea, which ultimately faces up to the truth that “our wrongs remain unrectified and our souls won’t be exhumed.” In other words: though we might hope to the contrary, there is nobody coming to save us. Nor are we certain we would even merit such divine intervention in the first place. It might be a safer bet, as on ‘Fury’, to “pray there’s no gods to punish us”. 

Assuming there is indeed nobody to hear or respond to our laments: what might be the ‘Thoughts of a Dying Atheist’? To “know the moment’s near and there’s nothing we can do”—singer Matt Bellamy is surely not alone in admitting “it scares the hell out of me”. Rather than swimming against the tide, perhaps it’s easier to capitulate to the numbing solace of amnesia: “sell your memories for 15 pounds per year” and resign yourself to life as a “slave to the grave”—don’t even bother reading ‘The Small Print’ while you’re at it. The melancholy romance of ‘Blackout’ only reinforces the sirenic allure of despair. “Don’t kid yourself,” it croons, “this life’s too good to last.”      

Absolution broadcasts a message of impending catastrophe and the need for radical action. “Declare this an emergency,” Bellamy howls right at the start of the thunderous opening track, ‘Apocalypse Please’. Be in no doubt: “this is the end of the world”. An age increasingly devoid of belief is nonetheless on a collision course with “something biblical”—whether a miracle of deliverance, or the horrors foretold in Revelation, depends solely on the decisions we make. It is precisely this faint flicker of optimism which elevates the album above mere end-is-nigh wailing. Maybe “you’re working so hard and you’re never in charge”. Maybe “no one knows who’s in control”. And yet, ‘Ruled by Secrecy’ can’t help but let slip that “change is in the air.” Anxiety and apathy are all that prevent the transformation of the “cherished dreams forever asleep” of ‘Endlessly’ into waking reality.

With their third studio album, Muse crafted a unique fusion of sci-fi thriller and Greek tragedy, in which the band plays the twin roles of Morpheus and Cassandra—sounding the alarm bells to a downfall of our own making and daring us to push back the doomsday clock. “Your last chance has arrived,” intones ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ solemnly. Two decades later, the prophetic has become the inescapable. ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ hammers this message home with all the ferocity of its breakdown: “look to the stars, let hope burn in your eyes.” It enjoins mimicry of the solitary figure on the album cover—gazing into the heavens, not in supplication to a celestial redeemer, but with eyes fixed on the salvation which is ours alone to secure.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

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