Linkin Park has been warning its fans to expect the band’s midlife crisis for a very long time. One More Light, the first album that the band has produced since its strange consultation with Harvard Business School a few years ago, has been out since Friday — and sure enough, it’s an oddball.
Lest you doubt that Linkin Park, a rap metal band that peaked in the 2000s, could possibly generate such powerful emotions in 2017, I’ll simply note that One More Light debuted in the no. 1 spot in the iTunes Music Store on Friday, displacing Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar, and Ed Sheeran. One More Light has floated in the iTunes top five ever since. This is surprising for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the fact Linkin Park fans — who call themselves Soldiers, FYI — think the album is absolute garbage.
Linkin Park knows. Chester Bennington, the band’s lead singer, is violently aware that his band’s fans hate their lead single, “Heavy,” which sounds less like the band known for feels-bro caterwauling and more like bleachers pop led by a plug-n-play white girl vocalist. Bennington has anticipated fan backlash to this latest album with a vengeance of his own. Since May 10, Bennington has given a series of interviews in which he’s berated Linkin Park’s hard-core fans for their overbearing expectations, which generally implore the band to hew closer to the thrashing style of Hybrid Theory, the band’s 2000 breakout album. That album spawned the group’s biggest hits, “One Step Closer” and “In the End,” which encapsulate Linkin Park’s alpha-emo sound with utmost potency. Linkin Park used to sound like whiplash: from hard guitars to bleary silence and back with each passing chorus. It was the music of countless fan-made anime music videos of the Fullmetal Alchemist era and high school joyrides to the edge of tomorrow.
But now, Bennington’s asking that we all “move the fuck on” from Hybrid Theory so that Linkin Park can make new sounds. “If you’re saying we’re doing what we’re doing for a commercial or monetary reason, trying to make success out of some formula,” Bennington told Music Week earlier this month, “then stab yourself in the face!” These are fighting words, even if Bennington did laugh as he said them.
Before we all scrap with Mr. Bennington, however, we must give credit where it’s due. Linkin Park is a massively successful band that defied all odds by managing to avoid becoming a Y2K scream-rock novelty act, instead owning the 2000s outright in terms of record sales, the U.S. pop charts, and touring. Their platinum-certification streak ended in 2010 with the release of A Thousand Suns, an album that many critics and hard-core Linkin Park fans regard as a soft and wonky flop. “It’s not going to be Hybrid Theory,” warned producer Mike Shinoda more than a year before that album’s release. The band’s hedge didn’t go over any better the last time than it is this time around.
But One More Light doesn’t just sound nothing like Hybrid Theory. It also deviates entirely from the band’s previous album, The Hunting Party, which does indeed consist of what you might expect from a late-career Linkin Park album: hoarse male rock vocals, angsty reverb, action-blockbuster guitar riffs. One More Light, on the other hand, sounds like an A&R splitting the difference between the last Katy Perry album and the last Weeknd album. In fact, One More Light is such a radical departure from the Linkin Park archetype that I have some trouble imagining the band touring these songs to arena crowds full of lifelong Linkin Park fans. I can’t imagine that too many of them would be delighted to hear that there’s an entire grime record — “Good Goodbye,” featuring Stormzy and Pusha T — on One More Light. And I doubt too many grime or hip-hop fans will be excited to hear such pallid genre slop, either. “Good Goodbye” hangs in the sweet spot of critical disregard where absolutely no one cares.
Linkin Park hasn’t been this embattled since they made Collision Course, their 2004 pop novelty mash-up album with Jay Z. One More Light even sounds quite like one Jay Z album in particular: Kingdom Come. That’s the album where an aging Brooklyn hustler made an arena rock lullaby (“Beach Chair”) with Chris Martin. That’s the album that yielded a Jay Z–Beyoncé collaboration so bad that it has dissolved all demand for a duets album from these two for more than a decade now. Kingdom Come is the post-retirement “comeback” album that Jay Z fans generally regard as the rapper’s midlife crisis.
The whole joke about midlife crisis is that it drives men to the Ferrari dealership for the love of desperate, dramatic reinvention in the form of a powerful sports car that roars. One More Light does not roar. One More Light purrs like an old and sickly house cat. One More Light is the music of a band that wound up at the nearest Mazda dealership instead. At least when Aerosmith sold out with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” for the Armageddon (great movie, fight me) soundtrack, they made a massive tear-jerker rock ballad with a spectacular music video. Post-peak Bono is making sneak-attack bangers with Kendrick Lamar and Mike Will Made-It. The songs are atypical, perhaps. Still, they’re interesting.
But Linkin Park just made a late-period Eminem instrumentals album, which would have been annoying enough in 2010, when Top 40 was a wasteland of Alex da Kid’s super-sincere pop crossover piano melodies. In 2017, “Heavy” is simply unacceptable. Chester Bennington swears One More Light — a pop bullshit telethon if I’ve ever heard one — isn’t just some big sellout. It’s an experiment, he says. The band is switching it up, that’s all. Despite his claims that his band is guilty of nothing but the most honorable sort of heresy, though, the worst crime of One More Light isn’t that it’s bold, unconventional, and different. Nor is it that it isn’t Hybrid Theory 2: Fender Electric Boogaloo.
This album’s worst crime is that it is soft and boring. It’s hardly worth the series of aggravated assault charges that Chester Bennington promises to incur in his album’s defense. In the interviews, if not in the new music, he sounds so impassioned and raw. He sounds like the guy who made Hybrid Theory.