Artist: Linkin Park
Album: One More Light
In Brief: The problem with Linkin Park’s seventh album isn’t that it’s mellow and poppy. The problem is that it’s stubbornly, maddeningly generic, which is not something I could say about even the absolute worst songs on their previous albums.
It’s hard to think of a rock band with massive mainstream popularity that’s gone through more growing pains over the years than Linkin Park. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of effort over the last ten years defending their right to change their sound as they see fit, but then criticizing the inconsistent records they’ve come up with as they tried to outgrow the angsty rap/rock sound that first won them such a huge fanbase at the turn of the century. Look, I still really enjoy Hybrid Theory and Meteora, but unlike some of their fans, I’ve long since accepted that those days are over, and I’m as annoyed as the band members are when they continually get berated for not returning to that sound. The phrase “deader than disco” aptly describes the state of rap/rock as a viable genre in the mainstream these days. (Disco’s actually not doing too bad by comparison. I guess every genre goes through its cycles of being considered massively uncool until a younger generation uncovers some nostalgia for it and then does it to death all over again, but we haven’t quite gotten there with the music of the late 90s/early 2000s quite yet.) The band’s early albums were sonically consistent, almost to a fault, and then along came Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns, albums which seemed to constantly genre-hop in an attempt to prove to their nay-sayers that the band wasn’t a one-trick pony. Some of my all-time favorite LP songs come from those records, but listening to either of them all the way through takes some real intestinal fortitude for me. Living Things and The Hunting Party were much more consistent by comparison, even though both records underperformed in terms of sales. Living Things could be considered a more electronic update of their old sound with some experimentation in the margins, and these days it’s actually my favorite of their albums. The Hunting Party was a bold choice to explore the influences that predated Hybrid Theory, largely ditching the electronic aspects of their sound in favor of rockin’ it old-school, bringing in some guests from the heyday of alternative rock, metal, and hip-hop. It was deliberately out of step with modern trends, and I admired it for that. I figured that no matter how much the band might try to change it up on future records, and no matter how frustrating some of the failed experiments might be, there’d also be some real payoff when I took the time to fully absorb some of their more well-executed experiments. And then along came One More Light, and suddenly the universe is all topsy-turvy and nothing makes sense and I hate everything.
Look, I get that poor sales numbers for an album can make an artist a little gun-shy, and their label more than a bit antsy. Apparently the band decided to pull a total stylistic 180 as an attempt at damage control, because what I’m hearing on their seventh album is pretty much the polar opposite of The Hunting Party. I’d say it’s a massive overcorrection, except that it doesn’t actually correct anything. It’s one thing for Linkin Park to say, “Hey, we’d like to do more of a mellow electronic pop record”, because I’ve heard them do songs that relied heavily on synths and programming in the past that I’ve absolutely loved (see “The Catalyst”, my absolute favorite LP song), and I’ve heard them do mellower ballads in the past they’ve pulled off incredibly well (see “Iridescent”, “Powerless” and “The Little Things Give You Away”), and despite the fact that their two lead vocalists, Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, are known respectively for their screaming and rapping, there’s a strong melodic undercurrent to most of their material that makes it clear “pop” was never something the band completely shied away from. But when the melodies go from inventive and dramatic to generic, the electronic tinkering goes from sharp and creatively executed to middle-of-the-road and sounding like every beat-heavy pop ballad on the radio for the last four years, and the lyrics go from exorcising one’s personal demons to being vaguely uplifting in the most banal way possible, I have to ask myself what perceived problems the band was trying to fix. I didn’t want or expect another Hybrid Theory. But even a tired attempt to “return to their roots” ten years too late would have been better than this monstrosity.
The sad thing is that the band talks about this record like it’s some sort of a creative renaissance for everyone involved. Maybe they just have less to be angry about and they wanted to write a record about moving on and finding some sort of peace after the conflict and wisdom upon looking back at it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the material doesn’t play to either vocalist’s strengths. As hard as it was for me to get used to Chester’s scratchy, irritable vocals back in the day, it’s even weirder to hear him reduced to the role of smooth balladeer and occasional hook man for Mike’s songs. For Mike’s part, he only gets prominent vocals on three of these tracks, only one of which features his rapping. And even then, the energy level is way less than what we’ve all come to expect from the band. Guitarist Brad Delson apparently tinkered with all manner of new guitar textures on this album, but damned if I can tell the difference between most of them and a manipulated synth sound that could have come from a laptop. (I do hear acoustic guitar in a few places, which is… just okay. I’m not a fan of electric guitarists switching to the acoustic unless they can show some real proficiency that justifies the change.) As for the other band members… are there still other band members? Their roles have apparently been reduced to the point of total irrelevance, as far as I can tell.
And none of this happened by accident. The band deliberately attempted to make a sonically focused album where the lead single would be pretty much consistent with what you’d hear throughout. In the past, when fans predictably moaned that they didn’t want an entire album that sounded like “What I’ve Done” or “The Catalyst”, I took great delight in discovering that the entire record, with the singles taken in context, proved these predictions to be short-sighted. When fans complained about “Heavy” being a crappy electropop ballad, well, they ended up just getting an album mostly full of crappy electropop ballads. Sometimes what you see is really what you get, I guess. And the thing is, I wouldn’t even mind some of these more straightforward songs as a break in the intensity between songs that sounded nothing like them. Even their worst records before this one had sonic peaks and valleys that made it easy for me to pick out early favorites and compelling enough to go back and find dark horse picks that I had previously been to quick to dismiss. No amount of repeated listening is gonna get me to like most of these songs, despite how much I force myself to pay attention to the details. (And believe me, I’ve tried, because it’s my job as an amateur critic, dammit.) The details are mostly boring, when they’re not outright annoying. One More Light is a nearly unmitigated failure of an album. I can only hope the largely negative response it seems to be getting from both critics and fans convinces the band to try just about anything else next time, because there are truly few places to go but up from this one.
1. Nobody Can Save Me
The opening track, which launches us straight into mid-tempo pop anthem mode without any warning, is one of those that I think I could have been patient with if not for the later discovery that nearly everything else on the album had this same basic pace and production style going on. A slower song to ease us into a diverse Linkin Park record would have been fine, particularly one that offers some interesting thoughts on a man dealing with depression and insisting that he can’t be saved by anyone but himself. (A younger me would have interpreted this as a knock on religion, but older me realizes it’s not so much a statement against religious faith in a savior, but rather a statement of taking responsibility for oneself instead of blaming others and staying in a cycle of self-harm as a result.) The problem with this one isn’t really the pace – though the plodding, unimaginative drum programming that will become a fixture throughout most of the album certainly doesn’t do it any favors. It’s that the melody and the electronic bells and whistles adorning it – heck, even the little snippets of guitar – don’t fit the mood at all. They go for “uplifting radio-friendly anthem” when a song like this really needs some darkness and struggle. It is an absolutely weird thing to realize that Chester Bennington’s voice and the band backing him up are completely lacking in darkness and struggle. They’ve done more upbeat songs in a past where this wasn’t a problem because the music fit a more hopeful theme. But this just seems disingenuous. I can hum along to it, but I can’t really figure out how it’s supposed to make me feel.
2. Good Goodbye
This is the closest that One More Light comes to a song that I can get truly excited about, and by that I mean that I briefly get excited when the rap verses from Mike Shinoda and guests Pusha T and Stormzy threaten to have a little bite to them. Chester Bennington’s usually reliable for a solid, crowd-pleasing hook on a track like this to tie it all together, but easing us into the track with him singing another smooth, easygoing chorus that honestly sounds rather ballad-esque is exactly the wrong way to go with it. Once again, it’s a nice melody, but I don’t get nearly the amount of contempt from his chorus that I’m supposed to. He’s clearly saying a forceful sayonara to someone he’s over and done with and ready to move on with his life, but it’s not sarcastic enough to be witty and not mean enough to communicate the genuine pain they’ve apparently caused him. Shinoda’s verse starts off a bit stilted, which has been a common criticism of his rap breaks throughout the years. I don’t mind it when a more electronic-heavy song calls for a machine-like approach, but here there are just too many abrupt pauses that only draw attention to how the guest rappers end up schooling him. His boasts are certainly fun: “Enemies trying to read me/You’re all looking highly illiterate/Blindly forgetting if I’m in the mix/You won’t find an equivalent/I’ve been here killing it/Longer than you’ve been alive, you idiot.” But Pusha T really brings the angst front and center when he describes the person being let go of as a cellmate he was chained to while doing hard time. Stormzy falls back on name-dropping and breaking the fourth wall a little too much for my liking – we know you’re on Linkin Park’s song, dude, you don’t have to tell us you’re on their song. But I like the flow both men bring, and the energy they build up that really deserves a better chorus from Chester to bring it home. The beat even threatens like it’s going to go double-time and build up to something epic, but then it just relaxes again like nothing happened. Despite those complaints, this song honestly worked out better than I initially thought it would.
3. Talking to Myself
A shiny synth intro gives way to some punchier drums and an actual guitar riff at the beginning of the song – this is by far the most energetic thing on the album, and if you need a reference point for that level of energy, think “What I’ve Done”. Because it’s honestly not that energetic, and honestly pretty middle-of-the-road by Linkin Park standards. But still, it’s the closest this album gets to rockin’ out, so… yay? Looking at the credits, I’m actually surprised that Chester doesn’t seem to have a hand in writing most of the songs that he sings on this album, because he’s explained that this one is about him from the point of view of his wife, wanting to help him when he’s in a really depressed funk and not being able to find a way in. It’s a good subject for a song, and hey, kudos to the other guys in the band who wrote this one for listening well enough to give him a way to sing about it. His voice comes closer to his trademark growl – but never a scream – on the punchier parts of the chorus, and I actually don’t mind the smoother melodic parts in the verses, because he’s trying to relate to someone who is trying to relate to him. What doesn’t work here is, once again, the drums. They drop to yet another unimaginative half-time beat during the verse that takes a good amount of the wind out of the song’s sails. When the (relatively) higher energy comes back around for the chorus, it almost feels perfunctory, like the label wanted something resembling an up-tempo single in case “Heavy” didn’t work out. This song could have been so much more in-your-face and confrontational while still retaining the humanity and empathy it’s trying to express. A voice like Chester’s just calls for that sort of treatment. We have plenty of indie bands who do the whole sensitive, not quite as fast or as heavy as you’d expect traditional rockers to be, type of song in this vein, and they do it better because they add nuance and texture to make up for the usual rock song elements that the ear expects to hear.
4. Battle Symphony
Bored with the turgid drum beats thus far? Well, Linkin Park’s answer is apparently to slow it down even more and give us an anthem of personal empowerment that substitutes constipated grunting where energetic fist-pumping ought to be going on. Seriouslty, between the half-hearted electronic stuttering that tries to give this song some unique character, to the paint-by-numbers melody, to the maddeningly basic and unhelpful lyrics about fusing your armor back together when you face adversity, pretty much every moment of this song is cringeworthy. And not for the reasons that Linkin Park’s past lowlights have been cringeworthy. Chester’s not screeching along with no volume control to an otherwise tender acoustic ballad like he did on “The Messenger”. He’s not dropping f-bombs left and right like they’re going out of style like he did on “Given Up” or Mike did on “When They Come For Me”. There’s just such a stubborn unwillingness to branch out beyond pithy cliches about fighting that unnamed oppressor and looking for those answers to the unnamed questions here that I could easily imagine any flash-in-the-pan DJ with no real concern for the lyrics throwing this together just to score a crossover pop hit. Except then it might actually be danceable or something, instead of this jerky mess. If this is supposed to be a song about doing battle, where’s the fight in it? For that matter, where’s the damn symphony?! I usually have a lot of patience for Linkin Park trying different things, so my violently negative reaction to this song despite that willingness to give them a chance should speak volumes. Avoid it AT ALL COSTS.
It’s Mike’s turn at the… uh, mic. He’s done rapping for the rest of this record, so out comes his singing voice, which has never been a negative for me, but it’s definitely not as powerful as Chester’s. This hasn’t been a problem on a lot of the previous LP tracks where he’s emphasized singing over rapping, because either Chester has backed him up, or he’s really knocked it out of the park production-wise. (“Castle of Glass” was an excellent example of both.) Here, there just isn’t anything strong enough hook-wise to really make much of an impression, so while his melody floats along pleasantly enough, and I can get into the overall apologetic vibe of the song, I can’t consider it a highlight. What’s most frustrating is that this is honestly one of the better written songs on the album. Mike’s a dad now, and as any parent trying to strike a balance between being a friend and a disciplinarian to their children knows, sometimes you have to be the bad guy and they hate you for it even though you bring out that old cliche that they’ll understand when they get older. If you ever felt like a horrible person for having to raise your voice at a kid who was just bound and determined to do the thing you told them not to no matter what, then this song – or rather, the song I’m imagining in my head that has these lyrics and better music – is for you. Maybe it’s just because I recently became a Foster dad, but these words really get to me: “If I cannot break your fall, I’ll pick you up right off the ground/If you felt invisible, I won’t let you feel that now.” (I’d totally steal that and say it to my kid if she was old enough to understand what the hell I was saying. We’re still working on “Da-da” and “NO!”)
So here we are at the crux of the album. The song that started the inevitable round of backlash for the band this time around. Try as I might, I can’t bring myself to either love it or hate it. It has its good points and its bad points, and they all work against each other quite efficiently to create a result that is about as “meh” as I’ve ever felt about a song with this high of a profile in the pop music landscape. I like that it’s designed to throw off your expectations in a few ways, from the very minimalist opening with some subtle beats and keyboard notes, and Chester’s voice coming in suddenly, as almost a defeated mumble: “I don’t like my mind right now/Stacking up problems that are so unnecessary”. Much was made of how their collaboration with Kiiara, who comes in for a duet vocal on the chorus and then takes the spotlight for the second verse, was LP’s first time working with a female vocalist, which made me wonder if they forgot about the remix of “My December” from Reanimation, or if non-studio albums didn’t factor into that declaration. Anyway, she strikes me as sounding like just about every other R&B-inflected vocalist on pop radio right now, and her presence here launches the song firmly into what I like to call “Katy Perry self-empowerment territory”, even though the subject matter once again deserves a much darker treatment. And I don’t mean dark as in letting an f-bomb slip during Kiiara’s verse. I mean musically, anything other than this crystal clear, full-throated pop balladry that highlights how far out of his league Chester is when doing this sort of thing. The lyrics really do try their hardest to paint a vivid picture of what it’s like to be so consumed by your worries that you can barely even function, and I give them a lot of credit for that. But the need to make a big pop hook out of it ruins the authenticity of the thoughts being expressed. When they come up with what might just be the most brilliant line on the record – “I know I’m not the center of the universe/But you keep spinning ’round me just the same” – suddenly they’re like kids whose parents praised them for doing something unexpectedly gifted, and they’re so proud of themselves that they repeat the line three more times before the song is over. And it’s not even part of the chorus. So yeah, pretty much anything enjoyable about this song becomes old hat rather quickly.
7. Sorry for Now
Okay, so we’re back to more of Mike’s ruminations on family life… does anyone feel like Mike and Chester were both vetting material for separate solo albums deliberately designed to not sound like Linkin Park, or is that just me? (Never mind that Mike already made a pretty good solo record as Fort Minor… but I digress.) This time around it’s more of the usual “sorry I have to go live life on the road and be away from you guys” type of sentiment… nothing that hasn’t been covered already by pretty much every touring musician with a spouse and kids back at home. There’s a wee bit of imagination to the electronic flourishes as the song takes flight – it’s got a little more color to it than “Invisible”, but it’s still on the weak side compared to what I know the band can come up with when they really geek out over the synths and programming. The only musical moments worth noting here are, once again, a balance of positive and negative highlights. First, the positive – I like the surprise of Chester coming in with a more energetic bridge. He’s not rapping, but his singing has a more hip-hop like cadence to it, making it all the more amusing that his use of the words “pump the bass up” is actually asking someone not to do this so that he can actually hear his damn family on the phone. As songs where Mike and Chester switch roles go, it’s no “Blackout”, but it’s still interesting. But then there’s the negative – there’s an absolutely obnoxious synth/guitar riff that follows the chorus, which just feels outsized compared to the otherwise mild-mannered nature of the song. Does anyone remember those late 90s-era Saturday Night Live sketches with the four guys performing the world’s most inane Christmas song, and Jimmy Fallon was basically only there to insert weird keyboard noises into the song? Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
8. Halfway Right
You know what Linkin Park’s devoted fanbase could really use right now? A dull mid-tempo anthem about Chester getting so high he suddenly finds himself driving his car with no idea how he got there. Seriously, this thing plays out like a Green Day reject with only half as interesting music: “Used to get high with the dead end kids/Abandoned houses where the shadows lived/I’ve never been higher than I was that night/I woke up driving my car.” I mean, put a pop/punk beat to that, and I wouldn’t exactly be excited about it, but at least it would fit the “stupid high school hijinks” attitude of the song. I know it’s meant to be a more serious song about someone warning you your actions have consequences and you brushing it off as meaningless until something bad actually happens to you. (Spoiler alert: We’ll soon get another song about exactly that.) But Gawd, what a snoozefest. Did we really need another slow, thumping beat and some anemic dubsteppy synth wipes backing up one of Chester’s least charismatic vocal performances ever? Nobody needed that. The song goes from merely boring to downright pathetic when he tries to add a fun “Na na na” hook late in the game, as if their audience is really gonna want to whip out their cell phones and wave them while singing along to this crap.
9. One More Light
The title track (which, as I’ve been informed by Wikipedia and probably should have noticed on my own, is the first time the band has named an album after one of its songs) is yet another case of strong lyricism dragged down by boring music. I almost hate to criticize the band for going soft on this one, because this is the rare moment where I don’t feel like they’re doing it for pop crossover appeal. This is a true ballad that never attempts to go for the big hook, and everything about is understated, leaving no room for me to doubt their sincerity. I respect them for that, and I’d actually consider this song quite brave if it had a more diverse album to back it up, that hadn’t already bored their fans to tears with its half-hearted pop production up to this point. Brad Delson’s guitar is a prominent fixture here, but not in any way you’d expect – it’s tweaked to serve as a soft, melodic bed for the song to float on, while Chester mournfully sings about a friend who unexpectedly passed away. The way he muses about the unexpected reminders of this person’s absence – even something as simple as an empty chair at the dinner table – are really striking. If you’ve lost a friend to suicide or an untimely bout with a terminal disease, etc., and find yourself wondering if anything could have been done to keep them around longer, these lyrics are probably gonna wreck you – in a way that I genuinely hope would be a good cry. I admire the guys for writing this. I love the defiance in the chorus when Chester insists that this person was not merely a statistic: “Who cares if one more light goes out? Well, I do.” But by the time the song gets to its bridge, where he has nothing left but to repeat “I do”, the song has run out of ideas. It doesn’t build to anything. I’m not saying it needs to suddenly be loud or climactic, but it could have done something subtle yet beautiful in that space to give the song the final heartstring tug that it really needed.
10. Sharp Edges
And now we’re gonna close this bizarrely down-tempo album with… an upbeat acoustic song? What the hell?! Actually, to be truthful, my ears perked up quite a bit at the slightly bouncy acoustic guitar riff that gets this song going. I was expecting so little from the band at this point that any deviation from the mushy electropop template was a nice surprise. I wouldn’t quite call this “country”, but it does have sort of a folksy shuffle to it, especially when Chester starts dispensing the sage advice that his Momma gave him about staying away from stuff that would only end up hurting him, which of course he summarily ignored. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Linkin Park song with a more blatant Aesop to it. And yet there’s that tension between “I should have known better” and “I had to find out the hard way to really understand” that sort of makes the song work. There are some brief moments where it threatens to be a fun sing-along – the problem is that it doesn’t stick around for long enough (at just under three minutes, it’s the second shortest track – after “Heavy”, oddly enough), and what’s supposed to be its triumphant coda at the end has just about the most hackneyed lyric ever: “We all fall down/We live somehow/We learn what doesn’t kill us make us stronger!” Well, thank you for spelling out what the rest of your song had already made bloody obvious, Kelly Clarkson. Throw in a few half-hearted “Ooh-ooh”s at the end, just to make one last pathetic attempt at cell phone waving, and then quite abruptly, the song and album are over. (Come on man, that’s not even enough time for me to dig my phone out of my pocket!) I guess I should be relieved that this mess of an album is over? Instead I’m kinda pissed that they got my hopes up with a left-field genre experiment on the last song, only to not quite pull it off.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Nobody Can Save Me $.25
Good Goodbye $1.25
Talking to Myself $.75
Battle Symphony –$1.50
Sorry for Now $.25
Halfway Right –$.75
One More Light $.75
Sharp Edges $.75
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
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: