Competing Theories
Muse Goes '80s, Hanson Goes Orchestral

I’m a writer. I’ve been writing all my life, and doing it professionally since 1996. I’ve never really wanted to be anything else. Like all writers, I was a reader first, and I credit a few authors with teaching me about the joy of language and inspiring me to make it my trade. One of them is the late, great Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a master class in bending words to one’s will. Another is Stephen King, whose books I read at far too young an age, but whose imagination thrilled me.

Before both of them, though, there was Stan Lee.

Lee was the first author whose name I committed to memory. Spider-Man was the first character I fell in love with. In collaboration with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan Lee created an entire universe that I loved to visit. My grandfather would take me on Sunday afternoons to the newsstand and buy me reprints of old ‘60s comics by Lee, Kirby and Ditko. I had no idea they were reprints – to me, they were new stories, and they burst off the page in full, glorious color.

I later learned that Stan Lee’s primary innovation in comics just happened to be the thing I loved most about his work as a boy – the heroes were flawed and fallible and relatable. I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone who knows me that I saw myself in Peter Parker, the awkward and shy kid who lived a secret life as Spider-Man. I dreamed up secret lives for myself all the time as a kid. It was Stan Lee who taught me (through Spider-Man) that with great power comes great responsibility, a lesson that still burns at the core of who I am. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Be grateful and treat each other well, and use your gifts to make the world a better place.

I know whole generations of kids only know Stan Lee as the old guy who crops up in every Marvel movie. I also know that among those who understand his legacy, he’s controversial, infamously unwilling to give his collaborators the credit they deserve. Stan Lee was a huckster and a showman, but he was also a creative force, and for a young kid growing up on comic books, he was my gateway to other worlds. His impact on my life and the lives of so many others is incalculable.

Stan Lee died yesterday at age 95. I join the chorus of millions paying tribute to him today, by saying simply this: Thank you, Stan, and excelsior.

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I remember when Muse was just another guitar-rock band from England.

I was working at a music magazine when their first album, 1999’s Showbiz, came out. We received a promo copy of it, which I still have. It struck me as decent, but it never distinguished itself from the mold that Radiohead had crafted (and then shattered with OK Computer). I didn’t expect much from Muse, but I have to admit they’ve surprised me at every turn since then.

If I could have peeked 20 years into the future, I probably would have been surprised to find that Muse had not only soldiered on, but evolved into one of the most ridiculous, awesome rock bands on the planet. Their main strength and weakness remains their seemingly genetic inability to half-ass anything. They not only embrace every idea they have, good and bad, they follow those ideas to their most absurd conclusions, committing and then doubling down. When those impulses come together, we get something fantastic, like The Resistance. When they chase down folly, we get something insane, like The 2nd Law. And you never know which way they’ll go each time out.

Muse’s eighth album is called Simulation Theory. If you’ve seen the cover, drawn by the artist who designed the marketing imagery for Stranger Things, you probably know two things about the record before diving in. First, this is the album on which Muse goes full Tron, indulging all of their ‘80s synthwave fantasies. And second, in true Muse fashion, they fully committed to this transformation. When Muse says they’re going ‘80s, they mean it.

Simulation Theory is drowning in synthesizers. At times you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the Blade Runner soundtrack. Since they’re a trio with progressive rock tendencies, it’s always tempting to relate Muse to Rush, and the sound here falls somewhere between “Subdivisions” and “Distant Early Warning,” though not exactly like either of those. It’s big – enormous, even – with Matthew Bellamy’s elastic voice gliding atop monolithic walls of guitar and keyboard sounds out of a Thompson Twins record. Yet somehow it still sounds like Muse. (It was produced by Rich Costey, who helmed two of their classics, Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations.)

And it contains its fair share of great ideas and terrible ones, all taken deathly seriously with complete buy-in. I love “Pressure,” which sounds like classic Muse with a pulsing synth base. It has a stomping guitar part, a catchy chorus with some delightful falsetto, and an attitude that won’t quit. Right next to it is “Propaganda,” testing my patience with its “prop-op-op-op-op-pa-gan-gan-da” refrain, which sounds like it’s being delivered by a video game character. Its beat is slinky, Bellamy sounds great on it, but I just can’t do it. Every time the refrain comes around, I’m taken right out, the band’s spell broken.

But that’s life as a Muse fan, and thankfully Simulation Theory has more good ideas than bad ones. I’m not even sure what to make of “Break it To Me,” which combines a bluesy guitar part with a Middle Eastern-sounding vocal melody over a trip-hop beat, Bellamy whispering the title every few seconds. But I love “Something Human,” a slick ballad I could imagine hearing on the radio in 1985. “Get Up and Fight” is a standard Muse inspirational lyric set to surprisingly danceable synth burbles before the guitars bring it into the ‘90s, while the vaguely Gospel “Dig Down” makes the most of its throbbing bass, Bellamy channeling his inner Bono.

Given some of the excesses of Muse albums past, like the full symphonic excursions on The Resistance and Drones, this album is one of the band’s most reserved. Granted, that’s a relative term when it comes to this group, but Simulation Theory’s 11 short songs showcase their new sound without overblowing it. This is a strong piece of work, another reinvention in a career full of them. If you’d handed me this album in 1999 and told me it was by the same band who made Showbiz, I wouldn’t have believed it. They’ve gone some remarkable places just by being unafraid, and that confidence, for good and ill, is on full display on this record. When it’s good, though, it’s very good.

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Speaking of bands that ‘90s me would have been surprised to know are still going strong, there’s Hanson.

I’m on record as a Hanson fan. I have been for a long time, probably since their second major label album, 2000’s This Time Around. They’re a swell pop band, and each of the brothers can sing, play and write indelible pop and rock tunes. They’re not earth-shakingly great, and I expect they’ll never make an album that I’d call a profound work of art. But they’re fun, and their songs are delightful.

If you want a good summary of those songs over the past 20+ years, you won’t do better than picking up String Theory, their new double album. Working with arranger David Campbell, the brothers Hanson spent the last couple years putting together a cohesive show that (ahem) strings older songs together with new ones, and dresses them up with an orchestra. The result is something like a cast recording of a Broadway revue, only with the original singers front and center. The 23 songs that make up String Theory tell a loose tale about young kids who follow their dreams, even through hard times, and come out the other side as happy adults. Which ought to remind you of three brothers from Tulsa.

I think I’m angrier than the band ever was that “MMMBop” remains their only hit, and the fact that the brothers fully embrace this song, playing it live and including it here, should make me feel better about it. “MMMBop” appears early on String Theory, in a nice mix of its early ballad form and the pop single everyone knows, and it represents youthful exuberance (along with similar early hit “Where’s the Love”). They sing it like an old friend, slotting it into their career at just the right spot, and once it’s out of the way, they dig deep into their catalog, giving us gems like “Tragic Symphony” and “Siren Call” and “Me, Myself and I.”

And what about the string arrangements? Well, they’re awesome. They’re big and bold, of course, full Broadway settings with almost no subtlety. But that’s fine, since Hanson songs are rarely subtle. The orchestrations fully reinvent an early-career trifle like “Yearbook,” and invigorate a relatively new piece of awesome like “Siren Call.” (Seriously, this is one of the best songs the Hansons have ever written.) The new tunes, like the two-part “Reaching for the Sky” and “Battle Cry,” hold everything together nicely. The second disc delves into latter-day numbers like the new single “I Was Born,” and everything wraps up with the lovely “Tonight,” from their most recent album Anthem.

I love String Theory. It’s at once a well-curated flight through the catalog of a band that I think deserves a lot more respect than they get, and a nice reinvention of that catalog. Hanson is touring this album now, playing it straight through with an orchestra, and it’s a show I’d love to see. Over the past 20 years I’ve been a longtime fan of a lot of bands who have rewarded that loyalty with consistently excellent work, and Hanson numbers among them. They knew who they were before the world did, and they never backed down, believing in their own talent. I’m so glad that String Theory is their story.

Next week, Andrew McMahon and Mumford and Sons. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.