A significant faction of Linkin Park’s fan base probably shuddered upon reading that Rick Rubin returned to the boards for the band’s fifth album, Living Things, given how thoroughly the producer’s prior records with Linkin Park tamed the group. Rubin guided the rap-rock band down the road to respectability on 2007’s soggy Minutes To Midnight, a mostly rap-free (and at times oddly rock-free) preemptive midlife crisis that felt like catching up with the loudest guys from college and noticing that since landing real jobs they’ve started tucking their shirts in, even on the weekends. That 2010’s ambitious, Rubin-assisted follow-up A Thousand Suns met with some of the strongest reviews of Linkin Park’s career was small comfort to disaffected fans, since the band earned those reviews by trading head-lock guitars for an arty trickle of soft electronica, chilly pianos, and proggy synths. It was a good record, but not the kind of good record that diehards wanted from Linkin Park.
As the great singles band of rock’s shittiest era, Linkin Park was always more self-aware than its peers, a trait that made it one of the few groups to survive the burst of the nü-metal bubble with its dignity mostly intact. Awareness alone, however, hasn’t been enough to halt Linkin Park’s gradual backward slide. Every Linkin Park album has sold less than the previous one, and that knowledge hung heavy over its last two, where the band sang repeatedly of doomsday clocks and downfalls, seemingly obsessed with its own expiration date. In its efforts to adapt and survive, the group sometimes seemed overeager to reject everything that defined it as Linkin Park, and risked coming across as a band too good for its own fans—an impression that wasn’t helped by a recent interview in Spin where singer Chester Bennington recoiled at the notion of making another nü-metal album, saying, “That’s always going to be gross to us.” Despite its best efforts to rebrand itself as a prestige act, though, Linkin Park isn’t Radiohead. It’ll never be able to transcend the era that spawned it or build a new fan base from scratch, and it seems to concede as much on Living Things, a record that re-embraces the old rap-rock formula so tightly that its liner notes might as well include a formal apology letter to any fans Linkin Park has alienated over the last half decade.
Rejecting the slow segues and unhurried ambience of A Thousand Suns, Living Things is trim and muscular, all pumping fists and bulging neck veins. Linkin Park has teased the record in interviews as a middle ground between its recent experiments and the red-meat rock of its early blockbusters, but that description oversells any new influences. Even the potential departure “I’ll Be Gone,” a collaboration with Arcade Fire string contributor Owen Pallett, pummels like a lost track from Meteora. There’s some satisfaction in hearing the band reclaim the sound that fits it most comfortably, especially since the resurrected guitar crushes and hip-hop rhythms return rapper Mike Shinoda to the forefront after two albums that hid him in the margins. As remedial as they are, Shinoda’s earnest, one-rhyme-per-bar raps are the band’s most distinctive feature, and his back-and-forth with Bennington carries their most memorable singles.
Shinoda and Bennington’s brotherly chemistry remains undiminished, but what troubles is how little they’ve matured lyrically. Twelve years after reproaching the partners who failed them in “In The End,” they’re still singing primarily in accusations and lines in the sand. And since as part of their campaign to woo back alienated fans they promised to eschew all politics in favor of relationship themes on Living Things, this time all their wall-punch rage is directed at women alone. “You lost that right to hold that crown / I built you up but you let me down,” Shinoda raps on the lead single “Burn It Down,” a raved-up rewrite of “In The End.” “Lies Greed Misery” doubles down on that spite, punctuating its vengeful chorus—“I wanna see you choke on your lies / swallow up your greed / suffer all alone in your misery!”— with a finger-pointing bridge: “You did it to yourself.” And “Victimized,” a thrashy, two-minute tantrum, lays it on thicker yet. “Victimized! Victimized!” Bennington screams, “Never again victimized!” Breakup albums don’t come any more overheated or one-sided than this.
More than anything, those lyrics speak to why Linkin Park will likely never shake the stigma of being Linkin Park. It’s not the rapping or the screaming that puts off casual listeners so much as the face-value songwriting, juvenile worldview, misdirected aggression, and pervasive women issues. The band can dial down (or turn back up) the heaviness all it wants, recruit the most Grammy-proven producers, and keep current with the latest electronic textures, but those moves can only take Linkin Park so far when its songs have all the emotional range of an MMA bout.