Review Summary: Alive, kicking, and screaming – but only just.
Now that A Thousand Suns
has had two years to sink in, it’s easy to forget that Linkin Park were in the midst of a massive identity crisis at the time that they released it. Nu metal had been dying a slow and painful death for years, with once-popular bands like Korn, Papa Roach, and Staind selling poorly and seeing much less airtime on radio stations and MTV. Out of that blind panic first came 2007’s Minutes to Midnight
, which saw the band eschew their nu-metal roots entirely in favour of a more stripped-down alt rock sound. Variously described as the "sound of a band trying and failing to forge a new identity" (NME), “a muddled, colourless murk” (AllMusic), and "far and away the funniest thing you will hear all year" (NME again), Linkin Park’s first attempt at changing the terms of their engagement failed miserably.
But 2010’s A Thousand Suns
was something else. True, the album was bloated and pompous beyond all belief, and it was constantly dogged by the sense that Linkin Park were in way over their heads with regards to some of the stuff that they were quoting left, right, and centre (excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita; speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mario Savio, among others), but it did feature some of their most inspired songwriting this side of Hybrid Theory
. Songs like “Waiting for the End” and “Iridescent”, for instance, were pure radio rock perfection, whereas others like “Blackout” and “When They Come for Me” were glittering reminders of how Chester Bennington’s white-knuckled screams and Mike Shinoda’s in-your-face style of MC-ing had helped us face up to the rebellious pangs of adolescence.
So when lead singer Chester Bennington revealed to Live 105
that Linkin Park had begun working on new material for their fifth album, the band’s upcoming direction quickly became a point of keen academic interest. "We’re embracing everything that we have done in the past," he explained in that interview. If you believed him, Linkin Park’s fifth long player would essentially be the band taking the "best pieces" of their previous four albums and "smash[ing] them together into this new record". Now, this wouldn’t be the first time that a member of Linkin Park had publically insisted that their next album would be a distillation of all the awesome that they had ever come across in their careers, but it was by far the most believable. The band had grown in leaps and bounds since their first two records (the markedly similar pairing of Hybrid Theory
) and had actually hit on something decent with A Thousand Suns
To that end, Living Things
represents a marked attempt to create a collage of tracks that would fit comfortably into the back-end of the Linkin Park oeuvre. A bit too
comfortably, as it turns out, for frequently the sense is that the band is extremely wary of overextending their reach. As a result, we get a set of songs that, while structurally similar to the band’s early-2000s output, actually sounds closer to A Thousand Suns
and Minutes to Midnight
combined. Opener “Lost in the Echo” is Linkin Park for the new decade, with a blistering sequence of introductory programming leading into a pulsating electro-rock groove, as Shinoda delivers one of the band’s most defiant statements yet (“You can tell ‘em all now!/I don’t back up I don’t back down!/I don’t fold up and I don’t bow!/I don’t roll over don’t know how!”). “In My Remains” recalls much of Chester Bennington’s work with Dead By Sunrise, with its calmly chanted bridge acting as an unexpected denouement to proceedings. Elsewhere, “Lies Greed Misery” has a contorted guitar riff that snakes its way around Shinoda and Bennington’s call-and-response vocals before breaking up to form part of a gritty, chewed-up climax that’s as sharp as it is raw. Unfortunately, third track and lead single “Burn It Down” is probably the worst song the band has ever written, with its faltering hook and shambolic, preteen-breakup lyrics (“You told me yes/You held me high/And I believed when you told that lie!”) single-handedly removing about half of the goodwill the album has generated thus far.
Things get a bit more interesting on the album’s second half, as the traditional pop-rock sensibilities that characterize the album’s first half recede and are replaced by a grittier, more experimental edge. “Victimized”, characterized (correctly) by Rolling Stone
as “the band’s most aggressive track in years”, finds Linkin Park paying homage to short-fused punk rock bands like The Black Pacific and the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, with the brief two-minute skit arranged precipitously around an explosive drum pattern and a guitar riff that sounds like it was woven out of pure barbed wire. The folk-influenced “Skin to Bone” and “Roads Untraveled” follow, the former a soaring duet between Shinoda and Bennington that derives much of its strength from the latent industrial atmospherics that adorn its background; the latter a sombre follow-up to A Thousand Suns
’ “Iridescent” that rides a series of walloping guitar chords before dissolving in a haze of gang chants and washed-out grey. “Until it Breaks” features the novelty of longtime guitarist Brad Delson on vocals, although his performance is overshadowed somewhat by the track’s overbearing production fetish and Shinoda’s needless white-boy posturing. Meanwhile, the instrumental track “Tinfoil” is about as useless as its namesake, but “Powerless” is as good a mid-tempo closer as one could ever hope for from Linkin Park; it’s no “Numb” or “Pushing Me Away”, but it’ll do.
So – Linkin Park finally make good on their promise to return to their roots, and they’ve even brought some of the stuff that they’ve learnt in recent years along for the ride. When viewed through that prism, Living Things
seems like the perfect record – an album that’s capable of both bringing back a good portion of the band’s old fans while still being fresh and meaningful enough to strengthen the resolve of the loyalists. Yet this record is likely to do very little of either: that first generation of fans has long since moved on to greener (and better) pastures, whilst the select few that have remained will find that the unbridled daring and game-changing ambition of A Thousand Suns
is sorely missed. Linkin Park may have finally happened upon nu-metal gold, but there are no buyers.