So recently Linkin Park made some headlines in probably the worst way possible: telling their fans to ‘move the fuck on’ from their debut album Hybrid Theory.
And I want to unpack why this was possibly the last thing you want to say going into the release cycle and promotion of a new record – because on some level I get it. Credit where it is due, Linkin Park have shown themselves willing to evolve and push their sound – not exactly in a way that’s revolutionary, but it takes a band with some stones to follow Minutes to Midnight with A Thousand Suns – which, for the record, I’m still on the record liking probably a lot more than many Linkin Park fans. Fans that probably discovered you thanks to Hybrid Theory selling millions of copies and being a permanent staple in many people’s collections. And even though I think that album has aged pretty badly, I get why people love it, and it does have its moments.
So while I get that Linkin Park wants to move on and I completely understand their frustration with entitled fans who want them to make another version of it, maybe it’s not the best marketing decision to call that out right before you want them to slap down money and buy your newest record! And this is not Linkin Park at their strongest either: rock radio has changed dramatically and downsized considerably, hip-hop and electronic music has moved into wildly different territory, and their lead-off single hoping to cross over to pop radio ‘Heavy’ with Kiiara has not exactly been well-received, especially by those Hybrid Theory-era fans that will be your most guaranteed source of income! Worse still it comes across less like Linkin Park are pushing into new territory sonically and more just trying to keep up with the mainstream, even if it’s not an intentional artistic choice – which to some extent I get after their 2014 album The Hunting Party failed to cross over to the Hot 100, but they’re at the point where they could easily headline festivals for the next thirty years and not give a damn about mainstream radio! Either way, it was not a good sign going into the new album One More Light, and despite only being a casual Linkin Park fan, I was nervous. So how did it turn out?
Folks, I don’t have much to say about this one. Let’s put it simply: it’s a mainstream pop record of the dour percussion-over-melody variety that takes all the firepower of a Linkin Park record and mutes it entirely. Now you can argue why that happened: maybe Linkin Park came to this sound organically by accident – not implausible, given their relationship with hip-hop and tendency for monochromatic music – or maybe it’s because for the first time in their history they pulled a Maroon 5 and brought onboard eight additional pop songwriters. But at the end of the day, it does not make for an interesting or engaging listen, especially if you’re expecting a Linkin Park record to have any actual groove or impact or intensity.
So we might as well start with the production here, and a friendly tip: if you’re going to listen to this record, I’m not sure I can recommend reading the interviews from the band and producers, because between Shinoda’s naive claims that this is the riskiest material they’ve ever made – did everyone besides me forget A Thousand Suns happened? – and Brad Delson talking about all the nifty guitar blends on this record, you just get the sinking feeling that they might not be aware of what they’re actually making here. Because sure, if you listen closely some of those blurry textures in between the synth and the trap snares and hi-hats and vocal samples might be guitars, but it’s not like they have weight or impact or even much melody, not helped by the thick cushion of reverb that swaddles the album. Okay, that’s not entirely fair, as I didn’t mind the guitar line that runs through ‘Talking To Myself’ and the liquid tones that hold up the title track do lend the track some spacey ambiance I can appreciate, but when you compare them to the oddly jaunty lines on ‘Sorry For Now’ juxtaposed against some painfully clumsy and overdone drops, or especially on ‘Sharp Edges’ that sounds like it was pulled from a modern folk tune, they might be experimental for the band, but not experiments that work! Or, to recontextualize a quote from fellow music critic Todd In The Shadows about ‘Battle Symphony’, if this is your fight song with its trap snares and lumpy synth, you’re going to lose! And on the topic of synth, there was a halfway decent wiry line on ‘Invisible’ that picked up a bit of distortion on the outro I liked, but none of it has much swell or impact or even groove, and considering the percussion is nearly always at the front of the mix, the melodies increasingly run together here, devoid of texture or presence.
And this is increasingly not helped by the vocals. Let’s put aside the utterly throwaway verses from Pusha T and Stormzy on ‘Good Goodbye’ – Mike Shinoda’s got a good verse there, and to his credit on songs like ‘Invisible’ and ‘Sorry For Now’ he’s got emotive presence – but the real problem is Chester Bennington. And sure, I understood that there wasn’t going to be screaming on the record going in, but this is compounded by two big issues: one, how often on songs like ‘Heavy’ and ‘Sharp Edges’ his vocal pickup sounds painfully thin, emphasizing the frailness in his tone, but also how on songs like ‘Talking To Myself’ and especially ‘Halfway Right’ it’s clear he’s on the verse of screaming – hell, he even references it in the lyrics of the latter song – but he never does, which leaves both songs missing the impact they desperately could use!
But on the subject of lyrics, apparently all the writing was put together first before the instrumentation, so you’d think with the more muted presentation that the greater emphasis would move them to the forefront. Instead… well okay, I’ll give Linkin Park some credit for growing up a bit and showing a little self-awareness in digging into their issues. ‘Talking To Myself’ is from the perspective of Bennington’s wife singing back to him about constantly being on the road, which Shinoda then echoes from his perspective to his kids on ‘Sorry For Now’, where he tries to excuse constantly being on tour. It’s better on ‘Invisible’, where as his kids grow up he doesn’t want them to feel invisible or unvalued, even if they’re not listening to him. But even on these songs they feel underwritten and it really reflects how basic and bland so much of this poetry is, stripped of a lot of the detail that could at least make Linkin Park’s writing distinctive. Sometimes it’s outright incompetent like on ‘Heavy’ – all that acknowledgement of how your flaws can be draining for others loses its impact when Kiiara tries to actively skirt responsibility on her verse – but more often than not it’s just thin and lacking detail, like the by-the-numbers self-esteem material on ‘Battle Symphony’ or the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ cliches that pour off of ‘Sharp Edges’. Even songs that are meant to be more personal feel more distant than they should, like on ‘Halfway Right’, a song about struggling with addiction and self-destructive impulses that feels more hazy and distant than visceral; or the title track, an anti-suicide song where it’s implored that even if your light is one of a million that flickers out because you only exist for a moment in time, he still cares – and yet by the very mention of that sort of scope compromises the intimacy of the few details we do get in the verses!
Ugh… look, I don’t hate this, but that’s because there’s not enough here to hate. There’s no greater swell or impact in the production or delivery, the writing is overly broad and feels all the more cliched and flimsy on relistens, and if this isn’t a cynical attempt to remain relevant, it’s utterly clueless to how it’ll sound and be forgotten by the mainstream public, especially Linkin Park fans. There are a few decent songs where the band tries to get more personal, but in between misconceived drops, bland guest appearances, and a blur of sounds that strips out texture and yet are not placed in the mix to compliment melody, I found this pretty lackluster, netting a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation for diehard Linkin Park fans. Otherwise, I’m not interested in this experiment, and I know they can do better.