RIYL: Nine Inch Nails, Guster, growing up
First, a mea culpa to Chester Bennington.
In our review of Linkin Park’s 2007 album Minutes to Midnight, we (and by ‘we,’ we mean I) accused Bennington of wearing his sadness like a cheap suit in order to remain faithful to the band’s lyrical core, and therefore make gobs more money. This was based on two things: first, the lyrics, where Bennington sings about how miserable he was. Second, Chester’s notes in the credits, where he thanked his wife (“a.k.a. The Hotness”) and his four kids. Which produced the following thought: this married father of four is whining about how he wants to die? Oh, fuck this guy.
Should have hit Wikipedia. Bennington divorced his first wife in 2005, and married The Hotness a couple years later. He has one child with each wife; the other two are The Hotness’ from a previous relationship. So it turns out that he is indeed happily married, and presumably singing about his ex-wife, not his current one. My bad.
Having said that, Minutes to Midnight was still not a great record, though it did have its moments. They were clearly trying to add stronger melodies into the music, but most of the time, they either went too far or not far enough. The band goes a long way to rectifying this problem, along with a couple of others, on A Thousand Suns, their latest. Musically, it’s their most melodic album yet, and lyrically, it’s their most contrite, which is good, because if they spent this album still complaining about some girl or another, it would have been embarrassing. Sonically, this is their most mature album (the piano was a welcome addition), but it still maintains their glitchy roots. “Robot Boy” is not tailor-made hit single material, but it might be the band’s best song, as Bennington layers vocals – actual honest-to-goodness vocals – over a simple but effective minor-to-major chord progression, and “Burning in the Skies” appears to be Bennington taking responsibility for his failed marriage. “I’m swimming in the smoke, of bridges I have burned / So don’t apologize, I’m losing what I don’t deserve.”
The most curious song is “Blackout,” which sports a borderline bubblegum pop melody with Bennington screaming his head off for the first two verses, at which point Mike Shinoda takes over and sends the song into a furious scratch and sample-driven breakdown. From there, Bennington gives the music the pop vocal it deserves. It ultimately serves as a standalone bridge between the band’s past and their present, as does “When They Come for Me,” which begins as a jungle drum-heavy showcase for Shinoda, only for the band to slip in a killer pop hook within the chaos. “Iridescent” is as big a lighter-waving anthem as the band’s ever done, and “The Catalyst” is simply huge. Several interludes fill in the cracks (lyrical callbacks and foreshadows abound), though one stands above the others: “Wisdom, Justice and Love,” where the band takes a vocal sample from Martin Luther King Jr. and slowly morphs his voice into robotic menace.
Growing up is never easy, especially when you’ve made a career out of articulating every confused thought in your head. But every band gets happy at some point if they stick around long enough, and Linkin Park finally does it here. It may have taken a decade to do it, but strangely it doesn’t seem like it took too long. If anything, it’s impressive to see a band who defined themselves with all things adolescence (angst, profanity, hip hop, hardcore) find a way to maintain those elements in their sound, yet grow beyond them at the same time. Fans of the Hybrid Theory-era Linkin Park will probably hate A Thousand Suns, of course, but that happens to every band, too. They might lose more fans than they gain in the short run with this one, but there isn’t any question which of the two albums will have a longer shelf life. (Warner Bros. 2010)