Linkin Park’s fifth official album, Living Things, finds the hugely popular band (now in their 16th year) embracing every aspect of a formula that has won them millions of loyal fans around the world, a litany of Grammy and MTV awards, Billboard recognition and an ability to sell units in a new musical frontier that should earn the Linkin Park brand a Purple Heart for business sense and resiliency. The California six-piece fronted by the recognizable duo of Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda have survived for years beyond the nu-metal contemporaries they were quickly lumped in with at the turn of the millennium with their breakout RIAA Top 100 Album, Hybrid Theory.
Shinoda has described Living Things as the band’s “acceptance and eagerness to use all the tools in the toolbox … blending (six different musical tastes) into one.” Once again, Linkin Park has enlisted Rick Rubin to oversee production (Rubin also produced Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns), and Rubin’s skilled ears and deep industry knowledge flesh out some worthy moments on Living Things. If you are a longtime fan of Linkin Park (sales figures and radio airplay indicate you very well are), you’ll have a firm grasp of what to expect. That’s not to say there aren’t a few strokes of genuine risk from the band that both expand their sound and deviate from their countless radio smashes.
The album kicks off breaking little new ground with two songs that hardly break new ground for Linkin Park. The songs aren’t bad or poorly conceived by any stretch; they just feel safe and indistinct from a dozen or so other songs Linkin Park has released since Hybrid Theory. By the time “Burn It Down” comes around, there’s zero doubt which single from Living Things is gearing up for a run to the top of the alt-radio charts. It has the blunt edges, the big Bennington-belted hooks and vague lyrics filled with all the safe pronouns expected from Linkin Park, but you can happily sing along with in angst every time the song lights up the dial. If you’ve been in Linkin Park’s corner since Hybrid Theory, you know “Burn It Down” front-to-back, but you’ll be as addicted to it as much now as you were in 2000.
“Lies Greed Misery” starts off enough with Shinoda – who positively shines on Living Things – dropping rhymes with cocksure attitude and a confident rhythm, but the song retires to the formulaic alt-radio-ready structure as it loops around to Bennington’s screamed refrain, “I wanna see you choke on your lies / swallow up your pride / suffer all alone in your misery.” It, too, seems very familiar and safe despite how passionately the band plays it. By the time Bennington unleashes his throat-shredding string of “You did it to yourself,” the song distinctly sounds like yet another rock band with rap tendencies still trying to emulate the most quoted parts of Rage Against the Machine’s catalog two decades later. It’s a pedestrian rallying cry adaptable to anyone and everyone yelled in a fevered pitch.
After “Lies Greed Misery,” Living Things thankfully (for casual fans, perhaps not necessarily for the steadfast Linkin Park faithful) gets more interesting and less predictable. It’s a testament to a band that has been around the block (landing an impressive estate on the cul-de-sac time and again) and a producer with a knack for big names, genre fusion and radio hits with lifetime musician’s cred. Living Things is a back-loaded album for the listener who is at least partially inclined to appreciating risk and bands stepping outside of their comfort zone. On the backside of Living Things, from “I’ll Be Gone” to “Powerless,” Linkin Park proves they have been around for 16 years, can deliver with confidence, write a hook and take an occasional leap of faith.
The album’s biggest highlight comes in the somber, enchanting “Roads Untraveled,” a ballad rooted in gorgeous rhythm brought to life by a kaleidoscopic wall of shimmering chimes, Shinoda and Bennington trading verses in spoken word delivery, a strong guitar solo and a massive swell of a melody. It’s the song Linkin Park fans are least likely to expect if they’ve cut their teeth on the radio hits, but it’s the most interesting and memorable song on the album. It’s here in the adventurous stretch of “Roads Untraveled,” “Skin and Bone” and “Until It Breaks” where Shinoda stands out on the album. His voice and delivery late in the album is the sound of the guy willing to step up and take the big shot. These are the songs that sound least like the Linkin Park you’ve had pegged all these years (whether you love them or have long quit paying attention), but they are the ones with something to say and a purpose for existing in their desire to reveal expert songcraft and fresh ideas. It’s not just Shinoda succeeding – the whole band is at their top of their game in the homestretch – but the effects of his punches resonate the longest.
“Powerless” closes out the album as the Living Things ballad ready to make the major push for mainstream radio. It has a foundation of busy percussion and electronica, a sweeping chorus and Coldplay-worthy bridge, not to mention another big-budget blockbuster film tie-in (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) after a stretch of Transformers closing credits appearances and film scoring.
All in all, Living Things often is the album you’d expect Linkin Park to make, relying on tried-and-true structures and lyrics, not the most inventive or exciting band compared to what’s out there, but more accomplished and enjoyable than any of their genre peers. However, it’s the true flashes of individuality, guts and musicianship that make Living Things worth hearing beyond the songs that are going to light up the mainstream in 2012. The finest songs on Living Things are the greatest representation of what Linkin Park is capable of when they take their popular sound and marry it with veteran promise.