What exactly constitutes going back to one's roots? While Linkin Park have made promises of such in the lead-up to Living Things, their fifth studio album and third with Rick Rubin in the production booth, they've also insisted that nu-metal isn't what they're getting at in the claims of retro-view. So that begs the question – if they're going back, where exactly are they going?
If the faux-revolution of A Thousand Suns can be accepted as a concept album, which is arguable, Living Things is the band's return to form, according to themselves. In actuality, it's just the next step in the evolutionary process. The tricks are familiar – the gigantic screaming choruses, the monoliths of sound and digital washes, Mike Shinoda's wack-ass rapping. Yet guitars play a far more minor role than ever before on an album that begins as a disappointing run through old formulas but in the end offers a spark of hope to the cynical.
The album opens like a promo track for the Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronic haze of anticipation for the bass drop that never arrives in "Lost in The Echo". Instead, Shinoda's Seuss-ish rhyme patterns lead the charge of a rap verse that frames the emotives of Chester Bennington's heartache chorus about broken promises and, naturally, words getting lost in the echo. We are not finding ourselves exhilarated as the same tone of a dozen Linkin Park radio hits rolls on through. You've heard this song a thousand times already, even if you haven't.
"In My Remains" pushes the patience further still with big radio ambition that only gently tweaks the recipe. Shinoda sings the repeated line "Like an army falling one by one," a well-practiced kata of melodrama that's as predictable as it is dated. The campy electro-poppiness belies the house MC's angry flow in lead single "Burn It Down," but that's a sonic misstep among few on such a slick album. Rubin brings his Midas touch to the knobs, and the result is powerfully polished, just as he did with its predecessor.
When the ragepimping millionaires shift gears and focus on the futility of a doomed relationship – or the inadequate manner in which the offending female bid adieu – the question arises: what is any of this really about in the universe of Linkin Park? Five albums in, is there really still no resolution to the lyrical struggles we've heard since their outset? Has there truly been no evolution of theme and struggle beyond the ebb and flow of instrumentation and production trends?
When "Victimized" hits, the question takes on a new poignance. The band is doing themselves no favors as wildly successful industry veterans building arena anthems around endlessly repeating hooks like "Victimized! Victimized! Never again! Victimized!" There's an abundance of arena-ready choruses peppered through the album – it wouldn't be a Linkin Park album without them – but this one stands out as particularly cringeable.
For many, it's perfectly fine that the same colors are used again and again, and even celebrated when an artist prefaces new material by saying they're going back to the old material. We all need familiarity, and find it our own ways. But for others, Linkin Park has come to represent a modern emoting effigy for the bro culture, uninspired music for children of dysfunctionality looking for a justification soundtrack or at least empathy for the pain and incessant fury of mediocre suburbia they can't seem to shake. These tens of millions of moved units aren't all owned by muted-rage Pfizer babies and the products of turbulent homes, but seriously – sixteen years down the line and we still aren't over the bitterness of love's betrayal. We still can't let the wrongdoing subside. We still need to cultivate and amplify anger for the sake of anger.
If anything, the success of a band like Linkin Park is a testament to the discord of soul within our modern society. Women in 2012 are embracing and exploring self-betterment through an explosion of educated expression, yoga and beyond. There's an amplification of natural support for empowered, skilled and furiously passionate female artists such as Florence & The Machine and Grace Potter, while the masculinity of modern man continues to ride the troglodyte train. The rage rock movement continues to thrive, aimed at nothing but showing the world how loud it can scream "Fuck the world!" We still marginalize enlightenment and compassion, hipsterfying or hippiefying anything that shows a little heart. We've simply found a way to call someone a faggot without actually saying the word. And when Chester screams, occasionally it seems he's directly referencing this dissonance. And therein lies the hope for Linkin Park.
What begins as a bleak thematic rehash of an album begins to grow potential as an experimental mood works into the frame. The band fucks with the formula a bit on the digi-mecha grinding of "Lies Greed Misery," which owes more to M.I.A. and Santigold than daddy issues, and the Bjork-tinkling tenderness of "Roads Untraveled" deserves its due as a poetic offering of support for a "seat here alongside me".
Even "I'll Be Gone" gives a shot at alteration, but the chorus pulls up the screamy blanket and tucks into the color-by-numbers too soon. There's a hypnotic gravity to the track that's hard to deny, however, just as the rasta blitz on "Until It Breaks" works damn well… as long as you can dismiss the lazy Bennington spot and don't hold the Coldplay Hallmark moment around two and a half minutes in against them. It's guitarist Brad Delson's step into vocal contributions, and aside from the contrast to the rest of the song it's a brief but respectable effort.
"Tinfoil" and "Powerless," meanwhile were clearly divided for the sake of the latter's radio accessibility, as it serves a fitting FM epilogue to "My December." The electro-thrust dynamics that sell so well will undoubtedly catapult this into every third song the radio spits out this Summer.
In my review of Linkin Park's last album A Thousand Suns, I called the music "anger for fashion’s sake," and "an uprising based on marketability, gluttonously self-indulgent and commercially ambitious." Through the first few songs of Living Things, it appeared as if we were doomed to the same tired and shamelessly exploitive architecture, but through the album's progression there's a teetering sense of growth. Undoubtedly, Rick Rubin is on a quest of his own, itching to recapture some of that early Beastie grit-swagger. It doesn't always work, but sometimes it does, to the band's benefit.
We're hoping not to look back on this era with the same shame we feel when reflecting on the hybridization of rap and metal in the decade past. Hopefully the balance of legitimacy brought by artists like Trent Reznor, Radiohead or even Muse and Sleigh Bells will offset the cartoonish accidental mockery of the concept by the likes of Korn and, previously, Linkin Park. But Living Things shows potential for Shinoda, Bennington and crew to move beyond the pomposity of faux revolution and relationship rage. If they can just believe it themselves, this might really go somewhere.