Different place, different time

Posted in Other, Philosophy with tags , on April 18, 2013 by innothingwetrust

Fork in the Road

3 easy ways to change the future

I wanted to write a note about a very simple concept which just blows my mind. I guess it’s an extension of the idea of ‘cause and effect’ and it says that every single action and decision you make changes the future. It could be called ‘Sliding Doors Syndrome’ after the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film. What blows my mind is where the initial thought leads you – down a tricky philosophical path of causality, fatalism, determinism and, ultimately, questioning our own free will.

Here are 3 everyday things that you can do which will alter the future – the future which would have happened had you not acted in the way you did.

1. Take a different route home

If you drive, this thought may have occurred to you already. Or not if you’re not weird like me. I drive to work every day and there are a number of routes I could take to get there and back. There is one particular fork in the road at which I could go left or straight on, and it was waiting for the lights to change at that junction that I thought one evening, ‘If today I just went straight on here instead of left, how would it change my life?’ And in a flash I imagined how my life could turn out differently beginning with this first very small and seemingly insignificant change.

If I went straight on, I would see different things on the way home – different cars, different shops, different fields. I would follow different drivers – perhaps much faster or slower than those who took the left fork in the road. I would almost certainly arrive home at a different time. My girlfriend might be in the bathroom instead of the living room at the time that I open the front door meaning that I feed the cats instead of her. Perhaps I cut my hand on the tin whilst doing this and require a plaster. Maybe this plaster is the last one in the box which reminds us to add it to our shopping list. Maybe this addition makes us go shopping that night when we might otherwise have put it off until tomorrow. Whilst in the medical aisle looking for plasters, we bump into an old friend and spend 5 minutes catching up. The friend hears I am looking for a new job and says there is an opening at their place that I’d be perfect for. I go for the interview and get the job, my life changed forever.

Cut back to me sitting in my car at that junction, mind blown.

Now, you might say that it wasn’t the fact that I altered my vehicular course that my life took a different turn, but that I am a clumsy sod who cut their hand on a tin of cat food. Correct, but I will always be clumsy whether I took the left turn or went straight on. The point is that I was being clumsy in a different place at a different time. Look at it the other way round: think about a time when an opportunity has presented itself to you – would it have happened if you hadn’t been in that place at that time? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. And would you have been in that place if you had taken a different route home one day in the past? I’d wager no. Even leaving the house 10 seconds earlier or later would have changed how long it took to get to the supermarket, changed what and who we saw on the way and – critically – changed the point at which we went down the medical aisle.

And after all of this, think about every other driver on the road on the way home whose journeys you altered in some small way by being on that road instead of your usual one (or by not being on your usual road). Then apply all of the above to all of them.

2. Shuffle a deck of cards

I recently received a deck of cards at work. It was one of those gifts from a business affiliate which is branded and has different promotional information about the company on each card. I have taken to shuffling this deck of cards while I am speaking on the phone to people just as a pass-time (plus my ‘riffle’ technique requires a bit of work). It occurred to me that every single time I do so, I am changing my life or the lives of others.

At some point I will probably take this deck of cards home. Despite their annoying corporate messages, they are actually quite nice cards. Plus all my old ones are tattered and smell of all the booze that has ever been spilt on them. Given that every single card game depends in some small or large capacity on ‘the luck of the draw’, every shuffle of the deck I make now re-arranges this order not just for the next game to be played with them, but for every single game ever to be played with them. Imagine that. Go and shuffle a deck of cards with the knowledge that you are invariably altering the course of every pinochle, patience and poker party you will ever host (the first two are admittedly less likely than the third, but I needed them for alliteration). If there is money riding on each poker night then obviously the stakes are raised again.

And it’s not just playing cards. I have seen ‘healthy recipe cards’ that you can buy (52 cards in a deck, 52 weeks in a year = 1 recipe per week, clever really). Imagine you use these at home as part of a new year resolution to eat better food. You shuffle them on January 1st – but how many times? Each time you do will completely change how your year – and thus your life – turns out. Depending on the order, you will eat differently each week. You may have a conversation about chicken or lentils or asparagus or trout with a colleague or acquaintance if you had eaten that food that week. You may begin to bond with this person where you might not had you not conducted that initial conversation about the consistency of mashed potato and you may end up with a new friend – as well as their extended circle of friends. You may end up going to social events and places you’ve not been before. Maybe you’ll even meet the love of your life and parent to your future children and be kissing them at midnight on December 31st instead of grappling with the dilemma of ‘Hootenanny or Fireworks?’. All because you ate thrice cooked chips instead of the seafood risotto in week 12. You might also take the cards back to the shop and ask why ‘thrice cooked chips’ are included in a set of healthy eating recipes. Just another way your life could change.

3. Wait to throw the ball

This is one for the sports fans out there and specifically football fans (that’s ‘soccer’ to my American friends) although this could apply to a number of sports. It doesn’t matter much what level of sport you are watching, but for ease of explanation, let’s say it’s the Premier League.

You are watching Stoke vs. Wigan. In today’s climate, that’s a relegation 6-pointer (and for those not au-fait with footy terminology, that means it’s a very important game for both teams as each of them are in danger of relegation and need to win as well as needing their direct rivals to lose). Ryan Shawcross has already splintered Aruna Kone’s pelvis whilst clumsily roundhouse-kicking a bouncing ball clear and Tony Pulis’ incandescent rage at the resulting yellow card results in him telling his thuggish players to ‘snap the ref’. It’s a classic at the Britannia, and it’s 0-0. In the 89th minute, the ball is kicked out of play by Robert Huth (he was aiming for Franco Di Santo’s head but missed). The ball loops into the crowd and into your arms. You should take a second at this point to appreciate the power you hold in your hands.

While Maynor Figueroa is waiting for you to throw the ball to him, the players are getting into position on the pitch. If you throw the ball immediately back to him, he doesn’t see anything on, plays a safe ball back to defence and the two sides attritionally see out a 0-0 draw. Wigan end up relegated with Stoke staying up.

However, you don’t do that. You decide to wait 3 seconds before returning the ball. In those 3 seconds, Charlie Adam trips over his undone bootlaces and Wigan’s Ryo Miyaichi sees an opening. The ball is thrown to the on-running Arsenal loanee who dodges two leg-break attempts, a clothes line and numerous low-value coins thrown by the baying home crowd to slam the ball past Asmir Begovic. Wigan win 1-0 and stay up. The crushing defeat deflates Stoke and they end up being relegated to the Championship.

Fights break out in a few pubs and some fans get hospitalised. Pulis loses his job and never works in football again. Tabloid hacks will write different stories and match reports. The following season, the Stoke City fans  travel to Coventry, Watford and Leicester fortnightly instead of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. In addition, fans of the other 23 clubs in the Championship will be traveling to Stoke every other week instead of Wigan. All of this greatly affects the roads and trains on match days and consequently everyone else sharing them, applying ‘different road theory’ from the first example.

When you have that ball in your hands, you potentially hold the futures of millions of people. So like I said, take a second to appreciate that. Or 3.

Obviously we have no real control over the future. We can ‘alter’ it, but given that we have no idea whatsoever whether it will have a good or devastating effect, we are still slaves to the unknown. The ‘power’ we hold is like that of being entrusted to a panel of unmarked buttons, half of which send food, water and medication to a thousand starving children and the other half launch a nuclear missile to land on a different kitten sanctuary. Which buttons should you press? Well, you don’t know. You don’t have the power to know. But you do have the power to kick fate in one direction or the other, and it is a blind power that we have and exercise every single day with every single thing we do.

And even if you don’t subscribe to any of the above, my mere contemplation of these scenarios has compelled me to write this piece which you are now kindly taking the time to read. What would you be doing right now if I hadn’t done that?


Watts in a Name?

Posted in Sexism with tags , , on March 27, 2013 by innothingwetrust

Marriage certificate

Is the practice of women taking their husband’s surname in marriage a harmless tradition or a vestigial act of oppression?

My good friend Lauren posted this article on Facebook:


I started writing a response which quickly turned into one of my meandering thought-a-thons, so I decided to post it here.

Firstly, this is a very good article on a subject I feel strongly about. Moreover, Jill Filipovic’s fundamental question – why should women change their names in marriage? – is a very relevant and important one. It goes to the very heart of the history and entrenched implications as to what marriage signifies. However, what you choose to do with these implications is, and should be, up to you.

The particular implication to which I refer – that behind the idea of women taking their husband’s name in marriage – is, of course, one of ownership. Indeed, historically in many cultures women were never really their own person; they were considered their father’s property until they got married and became their husband’s. They would take his surname in marriage to signify the changing of ownership from father to husband, a bit like changing the name on a lease when you buy a house. It is really a vestige of a not-too-old form of social slavery. Thankfully nowadays it is no longer the law that a wife is the property of her  husband and it is also not imperative for women to take their husband’s name. Women changing their name these days is just a tradition left over from a less enlightened time, like the celebration of Halloween. As an atheist who celebrates Christmas it would be hypocritical of me to claim that we shouldn’t take ideas from things we don’t agree with. But Filipovic’s point is cautionary: don’t think that just because society generally no longer recognises out-dated views like female possession that the remaining traditions associated with them do not belie a persisting imbalance:

“The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence. Part of how our brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing. When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister”.

I think there is a lot of truth in this. Obviously, being male, I cannot know what this ingrained feeling of inevitable posessionhood feels like, and perhaps some women don’t realise it either, but it seems to ring true. It makes sense that this would instill in women a subtle sense of inferiority and conversely for men, superiority. Indeed, when I first started thinking about this and considered what it would be like to change my name to my wife’s, my initial reaction was one of total dismissal. I didn’t want to give up my name! The idea seemed totally out of the question and I would wager that this is the reaction felt by most men when considering this possibility. Most women, on the other hand, are resigned to losing their name from an early age. This is the culture we grow up in, and it is clearly unbalanced. What if children grew up in a culture where the decision about your married name was a free and open choice between both partners? Wouldn’t that be better? Legally, of course, that is now the case; by law, married couples can take whatever name they wish. But culturally, the expectation is still very, very much placed on the woman to change.

I wrote into a newspaper just over a year ago on a related subject: to congratulate France for removing the option ‘Mademoiselle’ from their official forms and paperwork (leaving only the options ‘Monsieur’ for men and ‘Madame’ for women) and to suggest that the UK follow suit. Although we do have the more neutral prefix ‘Ms’ in this country, as Filipovic says in the above quote, the fact that the choice even exists for women when no such declaration is asked of their male counterparts is revealing. Why is it that women are encouraged to declare their marital status within their own name and men are not?

The reaction to my letter was generally negative with one person suggesting that I was an ‘emasculated lefty’ – ‘emasculated’ presumably because I was a man raising a point about feminism which is highly un-manly, makes me less like a man and more like a woman which is way worse, and ‘lefty’ presumably because I was talking about the equalization of civil and social liberties for men and women which is completely lame and not cool. But the idea of ‘emasculation’ is very relevant to this issue because not only is there pressure on women to adhere to marriage norms, there is also a stigma against men who are seen to ‘submit’ to their wives by taking her name. This is key to the history of the whole debate. Taking someone else’s name is seen as an act of subservience – for women to submit to men has long been not only acceptable but actively encouraged or even enforced. So deeply is this idea entrenched in our collective conscience that for the opposite to happen seems unthinkable – hence my initial reaction to considering a change of my name. Wouldn’t it be nice, as Jill suggests, to redress the balance? Make men take their wives’ names for a change?

Well, no to be honest. If the aim is to arrive at a society in which men and women are in all ways equal – which it surely is for anyone who thinks rationally – this ‘gender push-back’ idea would be getting off on the wrong foot somewhat, wouldn’t it? She acknowledges this herself in her penultimate paragraph and although she is only presenting it as an idea to help create the more even and mixed culture I spoke about earlier, I don’t think this is the solution. What does a name change really achieve anyway? Family unity? Please, if you think your family name is more important than the unconditional love, care and morality you put into it then perhaps you should not be raising children.

As Filipovic points out, there are some more understandable reasons for a woman changing her name. Like her, I sympathise with the women who take their husband’s name to avoid the awkward questions and unwelcome debates about feminism. Referencing her article again, perhaps some women just don’t like their current names – one could understand why a ‘Fanny Payne’ might want to take her husband’s surname ‘Peters’. Perhaps the husband’s surname really did just sound better on both of them than hers did, especially if Fanny’s husband was called ‘Dick’. Maybe the unfortunately named Dick and Fanny are fully aware of all the historical implications, aware that they can choose whatever name they want and decide to go with ‘Peters’ just because they like the tradition of taking the man’s name. It’s possible that Fanny is just incredibly proud to be marrying Dick and really wants to be a ‘Peters’. There is nothing wrong with any of these.

Then there are the more modern compromises. As Filipovic states, some men these days take their wife’s name for varying reasons. Some couples go with a hyphenated conglomerate of both their names – ‘Taylor-Jones’ for example. Some have even opted to merge their surnames together, forming a completely new one. So our Taylor and Jones could become ‘Tones’. However, it is recommended that certain surname combinations – ‘Fuller’ and ‘Buck’, ‘Sherman’ and ‘Pitt’ or ‘Dickson’ and ‘Woodhead’ for example – proceed with caution.

Some of these solutions do raise practical concerns though. If you decide to go with the hyphen and give this double-barrelled name to your children as well, what happens when they get married to another person whose parents opted for the same solution? Do they become ‘Taylor-Jones-Hopkins-White’? I pity the teachers of the future if this method catches on. The school day will go ‘morning registration, lunch, afternoon registration, home time’.

It was something of a revelation a few years back – and sad that it should be revelationary – when the thought occurred to me that couples getting married, male or female, need not actually change their names at all. Why should anyone change their name if they don’t have to? It is simple, makes no difference to the ‘family unit’ and forces no one to give up anything. There are still practicalities to consider of course. For example, what surname do the children take? These things can be discussed though – discussed as a couple and as equals, not dictated by societal norms.

Ultimately there isn’t a right or a wrong way to name yourself upon getting married and that is exactly the point. I am not in any way trying to demonise any woman who has taken her husband’s name. I am not against this happening any more than I am against a man taking his wife’s name, as should be the case for anyone interested in true equality. But I do think there needs to be a change in our culture regarding the expectations placed on women to ensure that the pressure and onus is not on them to adapt to marriage, but that both partners are free to adapt however they wish. This needs to be the norm. The answer is not to adopt any one of the options listed above – none are intrinsically better than any of the others – but to affect a paradigm shift in the way we think about marriage, and particularly the way that children growing up think about it. We should not eradicate certain solutions, but instead eradicate the importance and pressure placed upon such a decision. Only then will both partners be truly free and equal in this matter. The ‘institution of marriage’ – which so many people so greatly fear losing – will be strengthened, not weakened.

My Experimental Marathon

Posted in Other with tags , , on March 7, 2013 by innothingwetrust

This Saturday, the 9th March 2013, I will run a marathon.

Not for charity, not for sport or competition, not even for fun (because I’m sure it won’t be). I am doing this out of sheer curiosity, a kind of experiment. I have always wondered how I would fare in a marathon with literally no training or preparation. Like many armchair fans, I often sit watching sport on the TV and think ‘pfft, I could do that’. How many times have you been watching football and, upon seeing a horrible miss, shouted “My nan could have put that away, and she’s dead!”? Ever been watching some obscure Olympic sport and thought you could do better? I, for one, have seen marathons before and thought, ‘It’s just running. It just happens to be a really, really long way. If Eddie Izzard can run 43 of them in 51 days, I can do one once”. Well now is the time to put my money where my arrogance is.

To make it slightly easier for myself, I have chosen a route which I know well. This will allow me to break up the journey mentally between landmarks and also stop me getting lost… I will be running (and jogging and walking and crawling and panting in a heap) from my house in Leighton Buzzard to a point in Winslow and back again. This, according to Google Maps, is exactly 26 miles. For all my friends in Winslow, I am afraid I will not be able to stop and say hi as this is a race against time and a test of my endurance!

I will be documenting my progress throughout the day for anyone who is interested in watching me gradually go insane and probably break my legs. I will be posting pictures, time updates and my general thoughts and feelings as I progress, so it should be interesting!

For anyone genuinely concerned that I’m going to hurt myself, I’ll be fine. I know that people train for years to prepare for marathons, I know that some of those same people suffer serious injuries during marathons and I have never heard anyone ever say that doing one was in any way easy or pleasant. Whilst I will be pushing myself to do this as quickly as I can, I also know my limits. I have literally all day as well to complete this – I am not aiming for a time of 3 hours. In fact my aim is to do it in under 10 hours, but if not, no great bother. Like I said, this is an experiment – there is no win or lose, just a factual outcome.

I will be carrying plenty of water and energy-boosting foods too (but trying to keep weight down). Any other tips people can give me are welcome!

Just checked the weather forecast. It’s going to rain.

I’m still doing it.

In Other News

Posted in Football with tags , , , , on November 21, 2012 by innothingwetrust

Chelsea Sack Pep Guardiola

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic today announced the sacking of future manager Pep Guardiola weeks before he was even due to take over at the West London club. The axe-wielding oligarch cited that he couldn’t ever imagine being happy, regardless of results and silverware, and that Pep Guardiola was not the man to change that.

The development comes just hours after previous incumbent Roberto di Matteo was dismissed for winning only the FA Cup and the owner’s much sought-after Champions League title, including a gruelling, gritty and resolute semi-final victory with ten men over the greatest-team-in-the-world, Barcelona, in their own back yard. He followed up this meagre offering with a merely ‘excellent’ start to the 12/13 season which has left Chelsea in third place, just 4 points off the top spot. With just 26 games remaining in the Premier League season and everything to play for in all other cup competitions, it seems the man upstairs is feeling those end-of-season jitters.

In addition to Guardiola’s early demise, Abramovic is currently drawing up plans to sack all future managers for any loss they might suffer at the helm. In addition, he is writing stipulations into their already-defunct contracts that the wearing of silly hats, allowing their players to grow any kind of facial hair and using anything other than Abramovic’s newly developed square football in training sessions will result in immediate dismissal. Rumours abound that the minted Russian is even helping to organise an impending fan coup to oust himself from ownership of the club following a future string of increasingly insane decisions, resulting in his own public crucifixion on Fulham Road. However, these rumours are as yet unsubstantiated.

Peter Crotchenstaff, spokesperson for Chelsea fanzine ‘Blue Ring’ was incandescent with rage at Roman Abramovic stating, “He’s mad. He’s flippin’ mad. Mad as a big bag of honey”. One fan who was interviewed asked, ”Did Roman Abramovic have a wife called Ruth who left him? Because he’s pretty Ruthless. I thought that one up while I was driving earlier, please use it in your article”. (you’re welcome – Ed.)

In other news, Cadbury have permanently ceased all production of Crunchie bars with immediate effect. Owner and CEO Dick van Bandersnatch was reportedly angered at not getting ‘that Friday feeling’ upon eating one of the chocolate honeycomb snacks – despite it actually being a Friday. Crunchie adopted the slogan in the 1980s and have been operating atop the successful advertising campaign ever since, but Bandersnatch felt it was time to call time on the brand. “Rather than change the mantra in lieu of a more attainable consumer promise, I’ve decided to just ditch the whole bloody lot”, spluttered the portly Executive, adding, “the great thing about throwing your toys out of the pram as an adult is that you are old enough to get out, pick them all up and throw them out again. It really is splendid fun”.

Employees of the chocolate giant have branded the head of the company ‘a total prat’.

In Other News

Posted in Advertising & Television, Other with tags , , , , on October 24, 2012 by innothingwetrust

Tears for beers as 007 cuts Bonds with tradition

This week, Daniel Craig defended the decision to change 007’s drink of choice to the humble Heineken for upcoming Bond installment, ‘Skyfall’.

“Product placement has existed in films for 50 years. These movies cost a lot of money and we wouldn’t be able to keep making them if it wasn’t for things like this”, the actor explained, entirely free from the threat of contractually binding non-disclosure agreements.

James Bond enthusiasts have been incensed by the decision which they feel shows that product placement has gone too far, now invading not just the film itself but elements integral to the character of the British secret agent. One fan was even heard to remark, “James Bond drinking Heineken? I can’t believe it”.

Daniel Craig also disclosed new snippets of information regarding the two further Bond installments he is signed up for.

“The first one will be called ‘The Real Thing’. Faced with the moral quandary surrounding the nature of his job, James becomes an alcoholic”. Obviously no brands in particular are implemented in his irresponsible behavior. “He gets demoted by M after a string of errors and loses his ‘007’ status, ending up as Agent 118-118. MI5 expand their operation and now hire more than 26 office-based staff at any one time. As such, they have to increase their list of code names, and Bond is introduced to Accounts Clerk BT who, over a series of cheap, long distance phone calls communicates effectively to him the merits of Teetotalism. Now drinking exclusively Coca-Cola – Heineken aren’t made of money – Bond re-discovers his flair, but is double-crossed by M at the expense of his job…”

Craig continued, “I’ve only just seen the script for the second film, but the working title seems to be ‘Insert sponsor name here’. In it, we see James working as a G4S Security man following his dismissal by the British government. After their monumental Olympics balls-up, those guys will pay a LOT to re-build their image. That’s basically the whole film actually at the moment”.

In other news, the makers of Popeye have announced that all of the Sailor Man’s cartoons will be retrospectively edited to replace his old trusty cans of spinach with Green Giant Sweetcorn. The sound of the burly scallywag’s signature “Ah ga ga ga ga” laugh will also be replaced by a hearty “Ho ho ho” as part of the same agreement. Rich Bastard, President of ‘Seaman Productions’ who make the cartoon retorted, “Integrity? I’m so loaded I’m shitting cash. Do I look like I care about integrity?”

‘Skyfall’ hits UK cinema screens this Friday.

Album Review: The 2nd Law – Muse (2012)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2012 by innothingwetrust

Newborn Muse trade Hysteria for Madness

Muse are one of those bands that have inexplicably become a household name. Well, I say ‘inexplicably’ from the perspective of about 2003 when they were a trio of weirdos from the unlikeliest of tin pot towns in Devon who somehow came together to create terrifically emotional alternative rock music fused with classical influences in a way that hadn’t really been done before. Not even a mind as meandering and inventive as Matt Bellamy’s could have written their story given such oddball ingredients. But their third studio album ‘Absolution’ and subsequent Glastonbury headline appearance garnered huge attention both at home and abroad, and their sound exploded from there in a hundred different directions like a mid-set pyrotechnics session. That’s the problem.

Compare Muse’s journey to another unlikely staple of modern popular radio playlists, Biffy Clyro. Again a trio from out in the sticks – this time Kilmarnock, Scotland – they are a band who began life, and I’m sure intended to continue it, firmly in the alt. rock scene. An energetic, ‘real’ band who played intimate live shows at sweaty venues to fans who actually knew all their songs, they did what they said on the tin. The kind of guys who would come out for a drink at the bar after a set, not slink off to the groupies, green rooms and tour buses. Hell, they probably didn’t even have a tour bus, they probably just rented a Transit van. They were a real, working band, no frills. Their own third album, ‘Infinity Land’ earned them more mainstream attention with some cracking singles and entertaining videos, but it was the subsequent ‘Puzzle’ with its much more commercial sound which bought them bigger shows, bigger support slots and higher festival billings.

It’s easy to see how one could become accustomed to such growing success and want it to continue, a decision palpable in Biffy’s fifth album, ‘Only Revolutions’. The honing of their song structures into easily digestible chunks is obvious, as is the inclusion of much more mellow and harmonious tracks (this was also true of ‘Puzzle’). And that’s fine, I get that – who wouldn’t want to continue playing venues like Wembley Stadium and the MK bowl? Biffy are now a headline act and they want to stay there, I would as well. But what I really respect about Biffy Clyro, no matter how far some of their music has gone down the toilet, is that they haven’t completely sold their souls.

I’d love to be there to high-five Simon Neil when the suits from the label come into their studio sessions and say, “Hey Simon, fancy turning down that distortion a bit? It’s just quite loud, y’know? Most people don’t hear stuff this heavy on the radio, it might alienate some new fans”. What is clear from their continued use of very heavy sections in their music is that Simon’s response is a resounding “fuck no”. ‘Only Revolutions’ contains possibly their heaviest song in ‘That Golden Rule’, and that was one of the singles! Their latest single ‘Stingin’ Belle’ taken from ‘Opposites’, an album which looks to be heading in the same popularity consolidating direction – even with all its sing-along verse-and-chorus radio niceties and twangly guitar licks – still has that very heavy intro. It’s a little piece of ‘them’ which they have retained throughout the height of their commercial career, and I salute that.

So what have Muse retained throughout their aptly ‘meteoric’ rise to superstardom? Well, sadly for the fans who have followed them since ‘Showbiz’, the list has all but disappeared. Bellamy’s voice is still as distinctive as ever, and if anything he has turned the ‘drama’ in his tones up to 11 in his work of late, for better or worse. And if you squint, the classical intonation and Iberian flamenco progressions are still there. However, these days, they are smothered beneath layers and layers of electronic fuzz. It’s like a piece of Renaissance art framed by a thousand flashing flourescent LEDs and neon strip lighting. In truth, something like that might find its place inside the Tate Modern, but I am venomously cynical about 95% of everything in the TM… It should be noted though that I love the other 5%.

To be fair to the guys, this transformation isn’t in any way unexpected. Muse announced before 2009’s disappointing ‘The Resistance’ that they were shifting direction. In 2011, Muse headlined Reading and Leeds playing the entirety of ‘Origin of Symmetry’ from start to finish to mark the 10 year anniversary of its release. They also announced that this was the last time a lot of those songs would ever be played live. And before the release of ‘The 2nd Law’, bassist Chris Wolstenholme said that the band were ‘drawing a line under a certain period’ in their career and that the album would be ‘radically different’ to their prior releases. So when a ‘radically different’ album turns up, no one has any right to be surprised. It doesn’t mean that we have no right to be disappointed though.

But look, I’ll start on a positive (of sorts): there is actually a fair bit I like about this album. Once you have gotten over the fact that this basically is no longer Muse, once you treat them as a completely new band, let’s say ‘The Muses’, and stop comparing their clearly inferior present work to their clearly superior past work, some of the stuff on ‘The 2nd Law’ isn’t actually all that bad. Sound like faint praise? Well, I guess it is, but there some genuine plus points.

Firstly, I like the concept of the album. The title ‘The 2nd Law’ refers to the second law of thermodynamics which is actually stated in the penultimate track (‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’), and goes as thus:

“All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted, and useless. New energy cannot be created and high-grade energy is being destroyed”.

Using this as an analogy for the seemingly increasing levels of social and political chaos in the world is a nice idea, although they do not weave it throughout the album as well as they should and often lose sight of it. The artwork is nice too.

But all surface observations and preambles all aside (over 1000 words in…), any music album has to be judged primarily on that – the music – and ‘The 2nd Law’ has plenty to talk about.

Opening track ‘Supremacy‘ is actually really good. It is a shame that Bellamy has not taken a page out of Simon Neil’s book regarding his guitar tone which is not distorted enough to be really considered ‘heavy’. If you’re going to have a distortion pedal, make it count. Watering down the tone is like driving a tank to the shops to get your groceries. Blow some shit up! Otherwise you’re just driving an irritating powerful vehicle around for no reason. But the riff itself is catchy enough and we are introduced to one of the album’s plus points early on which is Dom Howard’s drumming (that is when he is using an actual drum kit and not a selection of bloody synth pads…). He doesn’t give a masterclass of technical proficiency so much as a lesson in using the right beat at the right time, along with chucking in some interesting ideas here and there. It would be easy for Dom to provide a really rhythmic accompaniment to the main riff which is essentially triplets against a 4/4 time signature, but the ultra-simple 4/4 beat – bass drum on 1, snare on 3 – is so much more effective resulting in non-voluntary head nodding for the listener.

The opener also introduces us to another, perhaps less desirable theme, namely that of ‘soundalike moments’. I should really say ‘re-introduces’ as these moments were also prevalent on Muse’s last album ‘The Resistance’. They are those sections or melodies which you hear and say, “Ooh that sounds just like something else”, and they have crept into Matt Bellamy’s writing with alarming frequency. Firstly, the main riff with orchestral accompaniment very much has a feel of Puff Daddy’s Godzilla/ Zeppelin mash-up ‘Come With Me’. But that’s fine, I love that song (although again it would be nice if Matt Bellamy’s guitar was as heavy as the one in Diddy’s Kashmir). Secondly, I don’t know if ‘Supremacy’ has anything to do with Daniel Craig’s upcoming 007 installment ‘Skyfall’, but it could quite easily be a Bond theme, aided largely by the two semitone rise and fall at the end of each verse refrain – a musical phrase so utterly conjoined with Ian Fleming’s secret agent franchise that I can’t believe its inclusion was an accident. Those more geeky listeners might draw comparisons between the verses and the ‘Aztec’ level of Goldeneye 64, although admittedly that is an extremely niche observation… But I’m still counting it. Belllamy’s shameful robbery of John Williams’ ‘Parade of the Slave Children’ from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for ‘United States of Eurasia’ shows that he is more than adept at raiding lesser known pop culture gems for his own purposes. So we are already up to 3 on the ‘Sound-a-like-o-meter’, and it is only track 1! But the bottom line is that track 1 is good, mainly because I like all the things that it sounds like (and believe it or not, one of those things is ‘Muse’!).

A wonderfully tongue-in-cheek chord ends ‘Supremacy’ and leads into track 2 and current single ‘Madness‘. Brian May described Muse as a “magnificent, incredible group” when presenting them with the O2 Silver Clef award in 2010 for ‘The Resistance’. It’s little wonder they should draw such praise from the Queen legend – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and ‘Madness’ is chock-full of musical Queenisms (even more so than their other recent songs). The first two verses sound like ‘I Want to Break Free’ (Sound-a-like-o-meter = 4) with their simplistic 80s synth drums, while the growing scale (and pitch) of the harmonies has Freddie Mercury written all over it. The melody and chords sound like a combination of George Michael’s ‘Faith’ (s-a-l-o-m = 5) and Reef’s ‘Place Your Hands’ (s-a-l-o-m = 6). Musically the song doesn’t build as gradually as it could and to be honest the first 3 minutes just aren’t very exciting. However, May’s – sorry – Bellamy’s disjointed solo acts as a bridge between this slow start and what is actually quite a nice ending. The synth finally opens out into flowing chords and the guitar provides complementary echoey twinkling behind some lovely soaring vocals and harmonies on “I need to love”.

It’s still not Muse though, and this trend is continued with some aplomb with track 3, ‘Panic Station‘. It’s just bizarre. Muse appear to be attempting to revive 80s funk disco – ‘counting’ lyrics, an irritating synth ‘whoosh’ snare, heavily chorused bass, funky brass sections, it’s all there. The 3 staccato bass hits which start the song and continue throughout sound like INXS’s ‘Need You Tonight’ (s-a-l-o-m = 7), the melody on the line “And this chaos it defies imagination” is taken straight out of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (“You try to scream, but terror takes the sound before you make it” – s-a-l-o-m = 8) and the funk outro to the chorus is the equivalent section of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstitious’ (s-a-l-o-m = 9). This last one is no surprise as it features Steven Madaio on trumpet who actually played on the 1972 hit. But probably the most annoying thing about this song is the arrogance of Bellamy’s delivery. He has already stated in interview that  he sang it once normally and it sounded rubbish, so he decided to just pretend he was Prince. Perhaps this works for you, but to me this is a sign of someone who is just pissing around and not taking their work seriously any more. It’s incredible that one of the most distinctive sounding rock bands of all time now sounds so contrived and similar to everything else. And not similar even to bands of the same genre, but music rooted firmly in the pop mainstream.

Prelude‘ evokes the feeling of a 1950s Marilyn Monroe film scene. All it needs is a cheesy script: “Oh James, it’s not that I don’t want to see you. It’s quite the opposite in fact. It’s just… I’ve never been… in love before”. The sensitive conclusion leads into The Official London 2012 Olympics Theme Tune, ‘Survival‘.

The most obvious thing about track 5 is that these are some of the worst lyrics ever committed to record. To be fair, I think linking this song to the Olympics has done it a lot of damage. Without the thought of competitive sport in your mind, this is just a song about man’s insatiable survival instinct. Still quite terrible lyrics, but not the veritable cheese-fest it becomes when you know that it was written with the Olympics in mind. For those who haven’t heard it, imagine handing a pen to an 8-year-old and asking them to write a poem about winning a race.

By contrast, the end of the song is actually quite good. Some real, actual distorted guitar! And fairly downtuned as well. In a way, Muse had a lot of balls submitting this to the IOC. Partly because the lyrical content would earn a C- in a primary school poetry competition, but also because the ending really is quite heavy. Somehow the thought of Seb Coe & Boris Johnson nodding their heads to this and saying “that’s some heavy shit” doesn’t quite ring true, but clearly something worked for them. The solo bits at the end are good, mainly because they are included for the good of the song and not the ego of the performer. The frantic and increasingly higher echoey notes interspersed with that guttural distortion build tension nicely to the end. Unfortunately the tension is broken at the death by another ridiculously high wail from Bellamy who – yet again – states “I’m gonna wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin”. My word the lyrics are poor.

Maybe he had handed writing duties over to his new-born son, the questionably named Bingham Bellamy. After all, the following track and future single ‘Follow Me‘ is about him. Although this pledge of protection from father to son is touching, it is just not very good. Firstly, the last two lines of each verse sound exactly like ‘I Will Survive’ (s-a-l-o-m = 10). Secondly, it is obvious this far into the proceedings that a very irritating habit that Matt Bellamy seems to have developed is not going to go away. I call it a ‘vocal scoop’, and it is where you start a note very low and then ‘scoop’ up to the intended note. Annoyingly, he does it on almost every word in this intro.

But the overriding feeling when listening to this track is just how familiar it is. I cannot listen to the radio any more – like, I physically cannot listen to it – because it is full of guff like this. I don’t mind some of Nero’s music and their influence as producers on ‘Follow Me’ is palpable. But this track is so indicative of the music which is popular right now, and therein lies what is at the heart of this album, its fatal flaw – short-termism. The 2nd Law will never be a classic because it only ever aspires to be a mirror for today’s most popular mainstream artists. Tomorrow, in musical terms, this album will be very old. Where Muse used to innovate, they now seem happy to merely imitate.

This is only emphasised by the subsequent track ‘Animals‘ which shines as one of the few really interesting moments of the album. It is the only track on which Muse attempt anything different with regard to timing, the whole song being in 5/4. The lowered tone is also far more genuine and sincere than the pomp and ceremony of most of the other songs which is refreshing. The pre-chorus though does sound a lot like a slightly faster version of the same part of Origin of Symmetry’s ‘Screenager’, and even the first 3 notes of the subsequent chorus are the same as well (s-a-l-o-m = 11). Dom Howard’s drumming is again simple but clever, the syncopated rhythm of the crash cymbal during the solo section casting a different light on the musical landscape than a regular ‘on-beat’ rhythm would. In a contradictory fashion, his straight 4/4 beat over the 5/4 riff toward the end has exactly the same influence, although it’s a shame that Matt Bellamy again shies away from upping the ante with his distortion as that could have been a really good, heavy ending. You know, like Muse would have done. Still a good song, reminiscent perhaps of something Incubus would have produced before the quality of their own music went similarly southward.

And then back to the madness. ‘Explorers‘ could be an E17 Christmas single (there are even sleigh bells in the chorus. No, seriously). The glockenspiel effect piano intro is just too cheesy for words and Bellamy’s opening melody is the spit of Queen’s (yawn) ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (s-a-l-o-m = 12). There is also more vocal scooping (“who will wiiiin?”) thrown in. Matt Bellamy worked hard during Muse’s early career to distance himself and his band from comparisons to Radiohead, so I find it strange that he has decided here to lift Thom Yorke’s melody from ‘No Surprises’ to use for his chorus (s-a-l-o-m = 13). If the sleigh bells on the second chorus are not quite enough to induce nausea, the X-Factor winners’ single signature key change on the last chorus should have you reaching for the nearest brown paper bag. Why, why, why?

There is something about ‘Big Freeze‘ that is actually quite catchy and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think it’s probably just got a nice set of verse chords, but it is also down again to Dom’s simple drumming allowing the guitar to play the rhythm. But unfortunately true originality is again lacking as you can sing the chorus of Muse’s own ‘Starlight’ directly over this one (s-a-l-o-m = 14). At one point Bellamy even starts singing the same backing wail as in the Black Holes and Revelations single, but stops half way through, seemingly realising his self-plagiarism. As a side note, I would not be surprised to see this song played alongside ‘Map of the Problematique’ during live sets as the guitar effect is the same.

Just when you are ready to turn off and give up though, you enter the best section of the album. Usually reserved for the also-rans and perhaps one big final piece, The last 4 tracks of The 2nd Law are really the peak. First up, we have the 2-track ‘Chris Wolstenholme Show’. The bassist has been allowed two songs on this album which were wholly written and sung by him, both of which deal with his battle against alcoholism. After the incessant melodramatics of Matt Bellamy’s vocals, Chris’s effortlessly smooth tones soothe the ears like ice on a burn. Aptly, the feeling of ‘Save Me‘ is like floating in water, the echoey guitars and reverbed vocals bouncing off each other like sunlight shining through the rippled surface. ‘Liquid State‘ follows with an all-too-rare display of upbeat urgency, although sadly the full potential of the song isn’t properly explored and by the premature ending, you kind of just think ‘oh, is that it’? And also, the final sound-a-like moment of the record comes in the form of Liquid State’s similarity to Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘You Think I ‘Aint Worth a Dollar But I Feel Like a Millionaire’ (s-a-l-o-m = 15). Again, these two songs don’t really sound like Muse in any way, but then neither do most of the songs on this album. But the brief change of vocalist is certainly refreshing.

But for me, by far the most interesting part of The 2nd Law is saved right for the end. The two-part title track kicks off with ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable‘ which whips up a dramatic frenzy with a restless violin duo being battered by Dom Howard’s booming toms. The ‘newsreader’ style of delivery of the sample stating the second law of thermodynamics and the growing orchestral clouds gathering above it are the first real time on the whole album that the content and style of a song combine to make you feel like Muse actually have something important to say. Ironically, this feeling comes on a track where there are virtually no lyrical vocals at all. The electronic voice on the word ‘unsustainable’ arrives like a giant robot from the future heralding a warning and the obviously Skrillex-inspired circuitry of the rest of the track jars deeply like the digital apocalypse. This type of epicity is Muse’s forte and they exploit it well here, albeit in a new age. And at last, ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System‘ acts as a solemn outro to proceedings, the double-finale feeling much more like moody music from a film soundtrack than a pop/ rock album. Again, the use of samples – this time random radio excerpts – brings a much more real touch to the experience and in the sincerity of this ending, one could almost forget all the pomposity of what has come before it.

Totting it up, I actually like about half of the songs on The 2nd Law. But that is as far as my praise will ever go I’m afraid, and some of my positivity toward the album is tempered by my annoyance at just how much Muse have changed. Taking the album as a whole, it is far too broad and encompasses too many different styles to ever have a true identity and the concept is somewhat lost among the many musical and stylistic meanderings.

Ultimately, The 2nd Law is more like an album of covers or ‘re-imaginings’ of Muse songs than an actual Muse record. ‘Follow Me’ feels like it was once a rock song, but this version is ‘Follow Me (Nero Remix)’. ‘Explorers’ sounds like Simon Cowell has gotten hold of it and given it his shitty sugary Christmas single treatment (see also Matt Cardle’s bastardisation of Biffy Clyro’s ‘Many of Horror’). It’s as if Muse have retired or died and lots of disparate artists have collaborated to make a tribute album. Perhaps that is fitting, because this really isn’t Muse any more. Disagree? Listen to this album and then go listen to Hysteria. Or Stockholm Syndrome. Or Micro Cuts. If you don’t physically fall down the veritable canyon of difference in both quality and style then quite frankly you are too fat to be listening to music.

RATING: 5/10

Look-a-like Corner

Posted in Advertising & Television, Other with tags , , , on October 19, 2012 by innothingwetrust

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