In which we finish our reading of Muse’s The 2nd Law! Here’s the previous part, if you missed it. Let’s get to it!
As always, my procedure works this way: I will write my first impressions of the piece. When you see the tarot card, that means I have flipped it over. I actually do not know whats coming during these posts until I am midway through them.
This song is the inverse of several of the others — it isn’t competitive or violent. Instead, it asks for help, for succor. It gets a bit weird, when it asks the listener to turn the speaker into someone like them, but that’s the interesting bit. The speaker doesn’t just want to be rescued from their life: they want to be rescued from themselves.
7 of Wands
This card seems pretty clearly about conflict, and it’s specifically about shielding something or someone from that conflict. Two of the seven wands are wooden staves, crossed behind the shield — which is, itself, quartered with gleams of light on it. The effect of the aimed spears is to highlight the shield even further: they are attacking it, but in doing so they’re pointing it out.
The song is about asking for this kind of protection, the sort of safe place and person who can help you to support the entire world as it peers in at you. That is difficult to find, and usually a pretty nice way to gauge parts of a relationship.
I heard something interesting last month. I don’t know if anyone still listens to radio, but we do sometimes, particularly on Saturday afternoons. I’ll be totally honest with you — we leave the radio on for our dog when we go grocery shopping. But that happened often enough and we discovered that Nikki Sixx — the guy from Motley Crue — had a radio show. He doesn’t anymore, he just recently stopped doing it. But, a few weeks before the big finale, he and his co-hosts talked about what they do at home. He said he felt his job was to make his family’s home a safe place that they can come back to no matter what is happening out in the rest of the world. While maybe that doesn’t excuse someone from never doing the laundry, it’s a pretty great goal to have. And that’s what this song is about, it seems to me.
We could talk about how it seems to displace that effort onto someone else, and about how, traditionally, it’s the woman’s job in a household to create the safe space. It’s a particularly gender-coded job, actually, as life guides in the 18th century would often write about how women make the home a respite for men, who go out and labor to earn the money and blah blah blah. But, you know. That’s just about ever kinda-indie song about women. Think “she’s so high” or anything by Train.
Dang. I’m on board with the music in this one immediately. I like that fuzzy, chunky guitar thing happening in there.
This is sort of an emo mirror-image of the previous song. It also asks the listener to take the speaker away, but this time it’s all about how the speaker is dead inside and needs that other person to wake them up again. It’s… honestly it’s like a lot of older Linkin Park songs. But, you know. We need those songs too.
The Hierophant is a weird old card. It depicts a religious figure, traditionally a pope — which is the card’s original name — leading two people in prayer or some other ritual. Often the pope blesses the figures. Here, the hierophant looms over them, apparently glaring, with a book open on a lectern.
A lot of people, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, react negatively to the Hierophant. He does not have to be negative, but the possibility is there. Positively, he is a spiritual leader, someone who can help us to realize our potential. He’s often a teacher — the Hierophant is one of the cards for teachers, as opposed to the Magician or the Chariot, which depict people using what they’ve learned. The Hermit is the other really significant card for teachers, at least in the way I read the cards. The Hermit has the knowledge and will teach those who come to meet him halfway.
The Hierophant, on the other hand, is out there teaching any who can come… and some who didn’t want to. That’s the negative side of the Hierophant. Since he’s so clearly a Christian priest, he can easily be an asshole. He can lead people astray, try to bend them to his own will, and become the leader of a cult of personality.
Which version is this song about? Well, I’d say it’s sort of both. The speaker is desperate for someone else to save him, just like in the last song. In this one, though, the speaker is damaged and traumatized. If someone just comes along and “fixes” him, he won’t really get better. That journey is one he has to do alone, even with help along the way. The Hierophant is helpful when the teacher can start the pupil on their own journey. But the speaker asks for unhealthy things, like being kicked or poisoned. They want to be mastered and remade. And that’s the bad Hierophant.
Today’s lesson? Think for yourself, even if you seek out a teacher. Or else you risk throwing yourself into pain like the speaker in this song.
We’re going long! The following two songs are paired together into a kind of miniature concept album. We’re already at the point where posts would usually stop, but I figured stretching this out to four posts would be a bigger problem. So strap in!
The 2nd Law: Unsustainable
A significant portion of this song is a statement of the second law of thermodynamics. In short, energy can’t be created or destroyed. In a closed system, energy dissipates. Therefore, eventually closed systems will run out of energy. Think of a water mill: it uses the force of water to turn a wheel, which turns a millstone. However, energy is lost. It seems as though there is endless energy from the water coming through the system, and if the water keeps flowing, that’s almost true. But if the system is closed, the water will stop flowing eventually. So if you set up a water wheel on a ditch and pour a bucket of water into the ditch, you’ll get energy for a few minutes (depending on the size of your bucket). An open system allows you to keep pouring water in.
This is applied outside the sciences all the time. Muse does that here, by adding the lines that endless economic growth is not sustainable. Where will the additional energy come from to sustain the endless growth? Imagine a perfect economy: everyone works, everyone consumes what is produced. Where are the profits? If they keep growing, that means money is entering the system at one point. It has to be leaving at another.
Typically, that’s from the exploited poor and laboring classes. This is basically Muse jumping at capitalism, and I am on board. Capitalism has, at its base, the assumption of endless growth. And that permeates every level of the system: big businesses, with no clear perception that there’s a contradiction here, acknowledge that they need to help employees out through management intervention and then say efficiency needs to go up, as last quarter’s growth wasn’t as high as desired (this is from a specific anecdote I’ve been told by a friend, but I’ve since heard and read countless other examples).
Let’s say that again: the growth in profits wasn’t as good as they wanted. So they made more money. But it wasn’t enough money. Practically, that’s because shareholders will sell their shares if they aren’t getting their money’s worth, hypothetically gutting the company itself even as it’s making money.
Well, that’s fucking unsustainable. And there’s the song for you.
6 of Swords
This card is often called “science,” after Aleister Crowley’s subtitles in the Thoth deck he helped design. That seems to make a clear connection here. This song is about the scientific, rational background to a claim the band wants to make. I outlined it above. This card simply confirms it. “It’s science, dummy,” the implication is.
Now, applying thermodynamics directly to things that aren’t about energy exchange doesn’t really work except as an analogy. But this analogy is time-honored and very useful.
The 2nd Law: Isolated System
This song is much softer and quieter. The sampled lines of dialogue form a collage of ideas concerning the stuff from the previous song. It’s about productivity and other demands on people. The only “lyrics” are a repetition of the phrase “isolated system.”
The implication is twofold: we’re in an isolated system, so we can’t demand more and more from our world. We’re also isolated because of this (social) system, which drains energy from us personally in the same way it is drained out of any system.
Without new energy sources, a system breaks down. In a society that demands all our energy, we will break down. It’s a fairly simple message, but it’s effective.
It also turns the entire album into a concept album, retroactively. The competition and desperation and flights from danger are all results of this isolated system that isolates. We’re bound to a sinking ship and we know it. It’s a bit like Ziggy Stardust in a way.
The Moon depicts a nighttime scene, with gentle clouds and stars framing a quiet, taciturn moon looking down on a yin-yang fish couple swimming. This card typically stands for the unconscious, for rest and recuperation. That’s clearly connected to the song.
But this particularly version of the card highlights something else. It’s typically a crab or something coming up out of the water. Here, the fish don’t leave the water. They swim in circles, in harmony, never stopping. They’re not an isolated system.
Nature, in the cyclical imagery we relate to seasons, is not an isolated system. Energy from decomposition enters the system to be used for further growth. But the old growth has to die for the new growth to begin.
Please note that thermodynamics still count in nature, as where else would they? So, I mean, a decaying tree growing mushrooms still experiences a loss of energy. But this is an analogical point, not a literal one.
The song is reminding us to leave this system for another one. Remember the song about fucking over the rich? Yeah. Imagine what would remain. We could re-enter cycles of rest and work.
I’ll end it there! The revolutionary Muse reappears by the end of the album, reminding us that all systems are subject to certain laws, and you can’t push them past those points.