Artist: Linkin Park
Album: Living Things
In Brief: Living Things is Linkin Park’s best album, even if it isn’t their most daring and creative one. It should not be written off a return to their old sound.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think they’ve finally done it. Linkin Park has finally managed to put out an album that I don’t feel like I have to apologize for liking. Let’s all give them a round of applause, shall we?
Alright, alright, I know what you’re thinking – “Not so fast, Bucko!” These guys have been critical whipping boys ever since they landed their first mega-hit at the turn of the century. Their early nu-metal-meets-electronica sound, heard on the massively popular albums Hybrid Theory and Meteora, spawned a host of unwanted imitators, and could be traced back to the bands whose sounds Linkin Park itself was pretty clearly imitating (or at least fusing together). Despite their best attempts to prove they could think outside of their own narrow box (collaborations with various rappers, Mike Shinoda‘s own side project Fort Minor, and two later studio albums seemingly designed to throw their fans for a loop), it seemed that they only managed to add more fuel to the fire. I was a fan in the early days, but somewhere around the middle of the decade, I came to realize that their music was more of a guilty pleasure – catchy as hell and good for venting frustration, but ultimately not all that deep or versatile. I joined the chorus of dissenting voices when Minutes to Midnight was released in 2007, the culmination of nearly half a decade of the band seemingly not knowing what to do with itself. But it was 2010’s A Thousand Suns that showed me the band might have some serious hope of making respectable and intriguing music that didn’t conform to the preconceived notions of what a band that came from such a reviled genre could do when they really put their heads together. It was not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination. I hated it at first, and I gave it a middling rating by the time I had adjusted to it enough to write a review. The chasm between its most inadvisable, embarrassing moments and its most brilliant moments is the widest of any Linkin Park record by far. But I listened to that album in late 2010 and much of 2011 as often as if it were an A-grade album. Something about the way the good material on that album flowed from track to track and felt like more of a complete, well-thought-out experience grabbed me in a way that I had never expected a band of Linkin Park’s ilk to grab me. They weren’t just making isolated songs any more, and they weren’t just about proving to the critics, “See we can do an acoustic song, or one where we don’t rap!” A Thousand Suns was where they threw out the rule book for their own benefit. It was a necessary step in their creative evolution. From there, they could seemingly attempt to go just about anywhere.
But often a band hits a point in their career where they realize they’ve lost quite a few people amidst all their wanderings, and they want to win some of those old-school fans back. That’s where Living Things comes in. We’ve all heard the claim that a band’s new album is a “return to roots” enough times to all roll our collective eyes whenever we hear it, and I really don’t think I’d want that from Linkin Park anyway. When a band learns some good creative lessons from those difficult, experimental albums that seemingly nobody gets, it’s good to carry on with those lessons in mind. Living Things strikes me as an attempt to do exactly that – to bridge the gap between the immediately catchy and gratuitously radio-friendly nature of their early stuff, and the much more electronica-oriented, genre-bending nature of their middle years. It does a pretty darn good job of it, too. These days, I go into a Linkin Park album expecting a bunch of dumb but catchy songs that I’ll never get out of my head, or a bunch of weird songs that will take me a while to like and that won’t all catch on, but I’ll think the ones that do catch on are really well-made and well-articulated. I don’t expect the best of both of those worlds. And yet that’s sort of what we’ve got going on here. Living Things blasts through 11 songs (and one instrumental) in under 40 minutes, and there’s rarely a dull moment, but I’m also not hearing any embarrassing moments, quite possibly for the first time ever with this band. Sure, those who find Chester Bennington‘s scratchy yowl to be like nails on a chalkboard or who think his whining about various forms of pain and persecution is too vague to take seriously will probably still find a lot to criticize, as will those who think Mike Shinoda’s rapping is too wooden. These things are just part of the band’s DNA – they sidestep them when they want to, but I think it’s an aspect of their sound that they enjoy and often play up intentionally. But those who complained that it was all big, dumb power chords and pretty much the same beat on auto-pilot throughout each song might be surprised at how much of the aggression actually comes from the keyboards, synths, and percussion, and how often two or more genres are mish-mashed in interesting ways in the same song. There are no two songs on this disc that I would confuse with one another. There might be one or two middling entries, but there’s nothing here that I strongly dislike. I’ve never been able to say all of those things about a Linkin Park album at once.
Lyrically, I can understand why the group has described this album as more of a personal one than A Thousand Suns. The themes are much less global and political this time around, dealing much more with personal relationships gone wrong and the battles that ensued as a result, seemingly much like their old stuff except that they just do it better here. Listening to Hybrid Theory or Meteora, it was easy to pump my fist in the air, curse the aggressor, and think about all of the broken stuff in need of deliverance, but there wasn’t much of a sense of hope or eventual victory over it. Here, the perpetrators are called out just as frequently, but it’s almost like the guys have risen above all of the abuse and neglect and whatever, and are looking back and warning those folks that they no longer have control. A few songs still slip into the whole “woe is me” thing or go off on otherwise morbid tangents. It wouldn’t be Linkin Park if they didn’t. But I feel like they’re having a heck of a lot more fun with it, as if to say that it’s all gonna crumble to dust eventually, so why waste time feeling constantly downtrodden in the meantime? Go spar with those personal demons like you mean it. Whether it’s being done in a scathing rap verse or a mangled scream over a frenetic punk rhythm, it all feels a lot more balanced than it did in the old days. I wouldn’t worry as much for the mental health of someone who played this thing on repeat as I might have if I were an older person looking at my twenty-three year old self and going, “Really? Hybrid Theory on the commute to work again?”
Ultimately, I might still think A Thousand Suns is stronger from a purely artistic standpoint, but the comparatively less risky Living Things is just an all-around better album. Those who have just written it off with a lazy synopsis comparing it to their early albums are really selling it short. Some of that old LP spirit is there, but it’s so much more triumphant and content with itself this time around.
1. Lost in the Echo
It’s pretty clear from this track that Linkin Park wanted to start off firing on all cylinders, doing all the stuff people loved them for back in the day, but trying to reconstruct it and do it better. Since their better material in the old days tended to merge their love for the electronic stuff with their aggressive rock tendencies, it’s fitting that the synth gets to be the lead “riff” instrument here, while the guitar (as it is on most of this album) is almost more of a percussion instrument, hitting those familiar power chords heavily to give the song some weight, but free from the burden of carrying the song’s melody. Mike Shinoda comes out of the gate with fists swinging, delivering a high-energy rap verse that seems to be the usual victim card playing stuff at first, until a bit more confidence than you might expect starts to slip through: “So you can let it be known/I don’t hold back, I hold my own/I can’t be mapped, I can’t be cloned/I can’t C-flat, it ain’t my tone.” I want to root for him the same way I did during the verses of “When They Come for Me”, but here there isn’t a God-awful profanity-laced chorus to foul it up. Instead, Chester takes the lead and drives home the main point of the song: “This time I finally let you go”. Whoever the abuser is, whatever those broken promises are, he’s wised up and he’s no longer buying it. He’s wise to use his “cleaner” tone here and only revert to screaming as the song hits the bridge (where Joe Hahn has a little fun chopping and screwing it up, though not quite to the insane lengths that “Blackout” took it), which comes slamming right back into a rousing final rap verse and chorus. It’s one big, fun “screw you” of a song, probably in the most psychologically healthy way that these guys could conceivably express such a thing.
2. In My Remains
The machine-like electronic sounds that get this song revved up might lead you to expect something harsh and experimental, but this is really one of LP’s most radio-friendly pop songs. It’s not anything mind-blowing on a musical level, but it’s got just the right balance of melody and aggression to go down smoothly without being dull. Chester has the lead most of the way through, only showing a hint of his usual rasp as he sings of sifting through the remains of a shattered life as if they were the ashes of a fire that had burned his house down. He could simply wallow in this tragedy, which is where the lyrics seem to be heading at first, but there’s that hint of expecting something better to come from it – “Set this silence free/To wash away the worst of me.” Mike doesn’t chime in until the bridge, where his somewhat reserved singing voice repeats the mantra: “Like an army falling, one by one by one”. I’m not entirely sure what that has to do with the rest of the song, but hey, it sounds cool, especially when he and Chester are singing it together.
3. Burn It Down
Solid choice for a lead single here. It’s got the melodic lift of “What I’ve Done”, the same hint of optimism present in otherwise dreary surroundings of “Somewhere I Belong”, and just enough of a hint of otherworldly machinery in its background sounds and lyrical themes to remind me that A Thousand Suns won’t be a forgotten chapter in their history. Much like the scathing “When They Come for Me”, this one’s dedicated to setting the record straight about Linkin Park’s purpose as artists: “We’re building it up to burn it down/We can’t wait to burn it to the ground.” Mike expounds on this in his punchy rap verses, which probably won’t win any points with the hip-hop heads for their flow, but which fit the band’s chosen genre as seamlessly as they usually have. This could be seen as a song of personal turmoil, like so many of their songs, but I really think there’s a mission statement in here, as if telling a disgruntled or confused former fan that whatever they were expecting, expect something else, because the band’s entire aim now is to deconstruct and reconstruct. That might be stretching the analogy a bit, particularly on an album that seems to play it comparatively safe. But then, they turn a corner after this and things do start to get a little weirder, so consider this the warning shot, I guess.
4. Lies Greed Misery
From the heavily synthesized intro to this one, you’d probably expect something rather poppy and danceable. That’s why I find it funny when it takes a total left turn into a rap verse with an absolutely hypnotic bass drum beat, and then pulls a complete 180 when it hits the chorus, which is spoken, though not quite shouted, by Chester in a rather aggressive and sneering tone of voice. It’s one of the band’s most confrontational songs, once again calling the aggressor out on the carpet, but this time around it’s mostly about this person getting hoist by his own petard. There are some barely-veiled threats, but for the most part it’s about the satisfaction of watching this person lay out just enough rope to hang himself: “I want to see you choke on the lies/Swallow up your greed/Suffer all alone in your misery.” What’s funny about it is that it has the energy of a rock song, but musically it’s a lot more like some sort of funky breakdance. Guitars are present, but they’re picked apart and put back together by a computer, just to add weight to the jolting rhythm of the song. It’s fun stuff. I’ve often found it cathartic to get into the adrenaline rush of one of Chester’s screaming fits – at least when it’s something worth screaming about – so hearing that smug accusation “You did it to yourself” gradually build to a boil is a blast. What can I say? Sitting back and watching an ego-centric jerk get eaten alive by his own schemes is one of the sweetest forms of revenge.
5. I’ll Be Gone
This one’s a little more guitar driven and once again we’re more focused on the melodic end of Chester’s voice – most of the hip-hop and electronic elements of Linkin Park’s sound are downplayed in favor of streamlined pop/rock, with just a slight hint of futuristic chrome around the edges. Once again I’d probably make the comparison to “What I’ve Done”, which probably didn’t blow anyone away for its musical style, but it had a hook with some real legs to it. Here, that trick doesn’t work out quite as well. it doesn’t sound like the Linkin Park of old, but as Chester describes a lonely night melt into nothingness and he resolved to have skipped town by morning, I can’t help but think of the escapism of a song like “Runaway”, even if this one’s nowhere near it genre-wise. It feels more like running from a problem on an album that’s mostly about confronting and conquering problems, so to me this one’s kind of the odd man out on the album. For a low point on a Linkin Park album, however, I can’t say that I find anything inherently shameful about it.
6. Castle of Glass
Absolutely killer beat on this one. The bumping bass is beautifully syncopated while the underlying rhythm track is quick and relentless, and an electronic piano zips up and down through it to add a foreboding melody. When the rhythm section of Rob Bourdon and Dave Farrell join in at the second verse, the song becomes a nigh unstoppable force. The vocals are reserved enough at first – almost morose in their flatness – that I can’t tell whether it’s Chester or Mike. (Mike has more of a “dry” singing voice, and I keep hearing elements of each of their voices, so they may be singing together, for all I know, though it’s definitely Chester on the more powerful chorus parts.) The imagery is intriguing here, much more otherworldly than the usual Linkin Park fare: “Fly me up on a silver wing/Past the black where the sirens sing/Warm me up in the nova’s glow/And drop me down to the dream below”. It’s easy to get a picture of a dark setting from some fantasy movie, in which a man is flying on a gleaming black bird through bleak, grey, rainy skies, dodging lightning bolts and arrows on the way back to his secret lair. There’s a very human fragility behind it that is laid bare in the chorus – “‘Cause I’m only a crack in this castle of glass/Hardly anything left for you to see” – but the song seems more concerned with creating a mood and a setting rather than spelling out an emotional problem in everyday English, and that’s the sort of thing I appreciate when these guys push themselves a little harder in the songwriting department.
It’s funny how the most aggressive songs on this album are also the shortest. “Lies Greed Misery” was two and a half minute, and this one doesn’t even clock in at two! Those inclined to headbang will have their first chance since Minutes to Midnight‘s “Mo More Sorrows”, since the pummeling riff at the beginning is somewhere in the realm of punk meeting metal meeting industrial. Then just to mess with you, the beat drops out and there’s some electronic feedback and some sort of clip from a speech or a movie (which is very much like what they did on A Thousand Suns), then it turns into this melodically foreboding verse from Mike that all but tells an enemy his days are numbered. Then comes a completely non-melodic, blood-curdling chorus from Chester: “VICTIMIZED! VICTIMIZED! NEVER AGAIN, VICTIMIZED!!!” It sounds almost childish, but it’s bolstered by earlier songs that are all about putting an end to playing the victim. It’s harsh, but it draws a line in the sand, as Mike further illustrates with a bravado-filled rap verse that contains some of my favorite lines from an LP song: “These snakes in the grass, supplying the venom/I ain’t scared of your teeth, I admire what’s in ’em.” I like how much genre whiplash they crammed into such a tiny little song; at it’s sudden ending, you’re likely to spend another minute wondering exactly what the hell just happened.
8. Roads Untraveled
The weird noises that fizzle out at the end of “Victimized” collide rather suddenly with the even weirder, atonal chimes that give this song its seductive rhythm. There’s a piano melody leading this one that reminds me of the Fort Minor B-side, “The Hard Way”, which would have been one of my all-time favorite LP songs if LP had actually recorded it. The way it shifts from minor to major key and back again is unusual for the genre, and shows that the inspiration for this one probably came from an unconventional place, much like a lot of the songs on A Thousand Suns did. It seems to be mostly Mike’s brainchild, as he sings the strangely addictive lead melody while Chester mostly just provides backing vocals (becoming more prominent when they add some “whoa”s near the end of the song to really drive home the repeating melody). It’s interesting to note that despite such a strong hook, this song has no chorus – just three verses and a guitar/vocal interlude that follows the same tune. Mike’s pretty clear about setting aside unfinished business and “what if”s and just letting the past be the past: “Give up your heart left broken/And let that mistake pass on/’Cause the love that you lost wasn’t worth what it cost/And in time you’ll be glad it’s gone.” This might sound defeatist, but I feel like it’s more of an anthem for those ready to move on. The ending is probably one of the most unabashedly sympathetic lines ever uttered in a Linkin Park song: “May your love never end/And if you need a friend/There’s a seat here alongside me.” Man, they sure have come a long way from “Shut up when I’m talking to you!”
9. Skin to Bone
Man, Mike really seems to be dominating the back half of this album! He’s taken the lead throughout most of the last few songs, and that doesn’t change here, on another fun little syncopated romp full of bass-heavy synth sounds, which packs a punch in its own way without relying on most of Linkin Park’s old tricks. It’s another melodically strong offering, shifting from dark to light and back again with its clever chord changes. The tone of the lyrics is downright Eccelsiastic: “Skin to bone, steel to rust/Ash to ashes, dust to dust/Let tomorrow have its way with the promises we made/Skin to bone, steel to rust.” Though I don’t think the Bible ever outright said this of a dead person: “When your name is finally drawn/I’ll be happy that you’re gone”. You can see here how the song is once again pulling from two themes central to the album: Meaningless promises, and finally being set free from some form of oppression. Even with a song as morbid and mean as this one, there’s a sense of relief, even happiness, to the thought that everything will eventually fall apart. When you’ve been held prisoner for so long, you don’t tend to mind seeing the prison get burned to the ground, I guess.
10. Until It Breaks
There have been some real curveballs on this album, but this is probably the one moment where taking a sharp turn from one genre into the next isn’t working for me. It’s a straight-up rap song at first, much in the same vein as “Wretches and Kings”, but without the political overtone. Once again, the bass is pretty phat here, which is fitting for one of Mike’s most boastful verse. I suppose it’s the “Nobody’s Listening” of this album – except here he doesn’t hate his own rhymes any more. As Mike finishes chasing the wannabe soldiers off the field with his taunt, Chester breaks in for a brief interlude, like it’s a completely different song, only for Mike to pick back up with a slightly more rigid beat. That’s where things get weird. At roughly the halfway point of the song, it completely forgets all sense of syncopation, transitioning into a mellow interlude where guitarist Brad Delson gets a surprise lead vocal, his voice shimmering with electronic residue as he sings a strange little coda about the body breaking down and finally being laid to rest. Both musically and thematically, this just doesn’t work. I salute the group for being open-minded enough to hear the guitarist out when he popped in and said, “Hey guys, I know how we could finish this one!”, but I think they should have done a little more work to make the genre mish-mash cohesive. An ending like that doesn’t really make sense unless you’ve got something more fleshed out and epic to hit a powerful climax before something like that comes floating in to wrap things up.
The practice of putting a Joe Hahn DJ instrumental at the second-to-last track will probably remind old school fans of “Cure for the Itch” and “Session”, but really, this is nothing like those tracks. It’s really a melancholy fragment of melodic piano, something that would be starkly beautiful on its own, but which takes on a bit of a different character when knocked back and forth between Hahn’s rearranging of rhythm. This all keeps in time beautifully with a swaying rhythm of 6/8, and it segues quite nicely into the album’s final song, so much so that I actually wish the two had just been left as a single track (especially with this track getting the original working title of that song).
The band ends the album on one of their more depressing songs, which throws me off a bit given the confident tone of most of the rest of it. But it is a lovely and compelling song, and it’s also notable for playing an interesting rhythm trick on the listener, trading 6/8 for 4/4 and then switching back again, for an uneven but memorable verse melody that somehow doesn’t seem out of place despite the programmed rhythm which seems like it should always be following 4/4. I really like the effect and I wouldn’t mind hearing the band color outside the lines like that more often. Here, it’s almost as if Chester is looking back at the abuser he’s finally escaped from and finally feeling some sorrow over how thoroughly this person screwed himself. There’s a bit of a realization that at one point they were similar people with similar choices to make, but they took different paths. It’s almost sympathetic, as if Chester wanted to help him change but the dude just wouldn’t listen. So here he is, powerless to stop the guy’s slow and painful descent into misery. You can almost see the young protagonist of some tragic story teetering on the edge of the cliff that he just watched his mortal enemy fall off of, as the sad melody comes blowing through like a cold wind. And there’s a moment of silence in which our hero might think something like, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (Or perhaps just, “Good riddance.” Either way, it’s poetic justice.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Lost in the Echo $2
In My Remains $.75
Burn It Down $1.50
Lies Greed Misery $1.75
I’ll Be Gone $.50
Castle of Glass $2
Roads Untraveled $1.75
Skin to Bone $1.50
Until It Breaks $.50
Chester Bennington: Vocals, guitar
Mike Shinoda: Vocals, rhythm guitar, piano, keyboard
Joseph Hahn: Tuntables, programming, sampling
Brad Delson: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Rob Bourdon: Drums
Dave “Phoenix” Farrell: Bass
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