Sound — 5
The popularity of Linkin Park has always been a strange thing to me. From their first two albums being simultaneously thought of as some of the best and worst albums of all time, depending on who you talk to and what mood they're in, to the fact that they've spent the vast majority of their career (nearly 15 years out of their 20 of existence) releasing albums that have little, if anything, to do with their first two.
The band has experimented a lot since their first two records, from the stripped-down alt-rock of "Minutes to Midnight", the electronic conceptual-pop/rock of "A Thousand Suns", the heavily electronic "Living Things" to the almost punk-rock "The Hunting Party", it makes sense that Linkin Park would attempt another great leap on their next album. But after releasing "Heavy" and "Battle Symphony" as singles, it became clear that the direction was something beyond any of that. Those singles heralded the arrival of a Linkin Park album that would go full-on into pop music territory, disappointing many long-time fans and having many expressing hope that this was either some kind of joke or that the rest of the album would show a different direction.
And one could almost sense that this is the case from the opening track on the record, "Nobody Can Save Me", which may constitute some of the most guitar-heavy production on the album, while still sticking to the pop-influenced script. Perhaps this track was placed at the front of the album to ease us into their new style, but the Chipmunk-style vocal effects in the intro are just annoying, and we're going to see these pop up more on the album. The song itself is absolutely unremarkable, with a dime-a-dozen pop chorus that does nothing to differentiate itself from the myriad pop records you'll find on the radio these days. Rappers Pusher T and Stormzy show up on "Good Goodbye", the album's token hip-hop track, and Mike's rapping is actually a highlight on the album, representing probably the closest thing you'll hear to any kind of real "aggression" on the album, but more of those incredibly annoying Chipmunk vocals, as well as a yawn-inducing chorus. Brad Delson's guitars are almost non-existent on the track, only as distorted power chords later on in the album. Dave Farrell's bass playing and Rob Bourdon's drums are either completely non-present, or manipulated to the point of sounding nothing like a human performance.
"Talking To Myself" marks another appearance of more "traditional" rock textures, and might be the only time you'll actually hear what sounds like a live drum performance on the album, along with some proper guitar riffing mixed in with all the layers of synth, but it's a bit of a shame that the song itself is nothing remarkable. Chester Bennington does sound nice during the chorus, but the melody is annoying. "Battle Symphony" is about as generic of a modern pop track as anything you'll hear these days, and while it's catchy, it's ultimately identity-less and forgettable. "Invisible" features Mike Shinoda singing rather than rapping, and just seems to be pretty much a continuation of the themes of the previous song.
First single "Heavy" features pop singer Kiiara and definitely contains the most direct pop appeal of any of the tracks on the album. At just under three minutes, with its sterile chorus melody and squeaky-clean synth washes, it feels tailor-made for pop radio. Guitar doesn't make any appearance in the song until basically the last eight bars, which will no doubt annoy many fans. "Sorry for Now" might actually be one of the more acceptable pop tracks on the album, with Mike Shinoda taking lead vocal duties again. Sadly, Alvin and his Chipmunk friends show up again during what would have been an actually pretty neat U2-esque guitar riff. Structurally, though, this song is a bit more experimental, with sections popping in and out not necessarily where one would expect, such as the aforementioned guitar "riff" and Chester's bridge. The song ends with a recapitulation of that "riff" section with a bit that almost sounds (*gasp*) like a guitar solo. "Halfway Right" is yet another very unremarkable pop song with nothing in the way of originality, and an annoying "na na na" chorus.
"One More Light" features a bit more prominent clean guitar playing, and a pulsating synth part underpinning Chester's vocals, and there's very little else going on in the song other than a simple guitar solo which is not even remotely shreddy, but just a more prominently brought-out version of the clean guitars in the chorus. "Sharp Edges" closes out the album with acoustic guitars and "stomp-clap" percussion, but not much substance.
Sadly, the songwriting and production on this album had a lot of potential to be much better, with Linkin Park definitely having the skills to take current pop music and put their own indelible spin on it, but instead opting to simply go all-in on making as generic of a pop record as they possibly could. Every melody feels like it could have been written by the writers for any contemporary pop artist, and it shows when reading the credits that the band did, in fact, utilize many outside pop writers for the album. Only "Sorry for Now" does not contain any musical contributions from outside the band (though the lyrics were written by six people, only Shinoda and Delson of which are band members). The production, carried out by Shinoda and Delson along with a slew of co-producers from the pop industry, also comes off as terribly sterile and watered-down, with stark electronic beats and washy synths not really giving any sense of movement or dynamics in any of the songs. Only "Talking To Myself" really seems to have any sense of musical movement to it, with the more "organic" rock elements complementing the electronic pop elements well.
Lyrics — 6
Linkin Park has always been one of those bands to be accused of the kind of "whiny" and emotional lyrics that plagued the nu-metal scene in the early-00s, and even though the band has grown quite a bit since their "Hybrid Theory" and "Meteora" days, the band has never really seemed to shake that stigma. Even incorporating a conceptual lyrical theme based around how people would deal with the end of the world on "A Thousand Suns" seemed to do little to dispel that opinion of the band.
Sadly, "One More Light" is not going to help matters, with its lyrics still firmly planted in self-doubt and other emotional struggles, but now with whatever could have been more intensely personal about the lyrics distilled by the inclusion of several outside songwriters (seven of them throughout the whole album, but only RAC and Andrew Bolooki appear on almost every song). Having so many outside songwriters really does seem to take something away from what could have been special messages directed at the outcasts among the band's fanbase, such as "Battle Symphony" which seems to be a rallying cry for those who feel that they don't belong. I've never professed that Linkin Park's lyrics have ever been full of depth or philosophy, but this album has a lot of repetition, not much in the way of substance, and often, as in the case of tracks like "Heavy", seem to be distilled versions of the "whininess" Linkin Park is often accused of.
Vocally, Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington are still fairly on point. I'll never complain that Chester is a terrible singer, he's clearly well-endowed in that department, and it's often his vocals that are the reason I've stuck with Linkin Park even through some of the band's less successful experiments like "Living Things". But I definitely miss the more aggressive tendencies of his vocals, and there's absolutely none of that on this record. "Talking to Myself" gets us about as close as we'll ever get on this record to Chester singing hard, and he mostly just sticks to squeaky-clean singing for the rest of the record. I do like that aspect of his voice, but it's particularly sad that a vocalist I considered to be one of rock's best due to its variety, just seems to be underutilized on a record for a very vocal-led genre. Mike Shinoda's singing is even cleaner (and probably more strongly auto-tuned), but I do enjoy his rapping on "Good Goodbye".
Overall Impression — 5
So, for a band that seems to have weathered all kinds of strong opinions, has changed their sound and style more times than I can even count, and never really seems to stay on one page for too long, it's safe to say that not everything this band has done over the years has really been all that great. That said, some of those experiments have resounded with me in strong ways. While a lot of fans did not enjoy "A Thousand Suns", I found its conceptual lyrics and rather unique blend of electronic textures with rock instrumentation enthralling. Their next most recent album "The Hunting Party" was as exciting of a rock record as one could expect from Linkin Park and was almost a return to form.
But perhaps all of this stark contrast has not led to "One More Light" being a very good experiment. Instead, Linkin Park have offered us their most watered-down, banal, and generic release to date. While the band has been known for being innovative at times (particularly their first two records), the band has not put their own spin on current pop on this record, deciding instead to simply embrace it and run with it to its logical conclusion: a squeaky-clean pop record that will be safe going toe-to-toe with the Biebers and Beyonces of the world. And perhaps that's fair, given that a lot of pop radio listeners are younger than the band's classic nu-metal records, and probably have no sense of the band's history. This record is not for those of us who have stuck with the band for nearly 20 years, but for those of us who have never heard of Linkin Park and have no sense of how important this band used to be. Those are the music fans that are likely to get the most out of this record, and I have to be fair to them. As a pop record goes, this isn't the worst thing I've ever listened to. Had any other modern pop artist come out with this exact record, it might have even come off in a more positive light.
But when even albums like "Living Things" and "Minutes To Midnight" seem far more innovative and against-the-grain, it really gives one pause as to how the Linkin Park boys thought this album was a good idea in the first place. There was a lot of potential here to make something special that still would have been appropriate for current pop fans, and I feel that the band had already achieved that on "A Thousand Suns".
This experiment in making current pop music, overall, just seems sad. A lot of the jokes about the band claiming to have grown up so much yet still putting out music targeted at a newly teenaged demographic have really rung true.
Are there any good tracks on the album? Well, there are a couple where you can almost here a slight shade of Linkin Park's identity come through, particularly "Talking to Myself", "Nobody Can Save Me", and "Sorry For Now", but even these tracks can't hold a candle to anything else in the band's discography.
Overall, consider this album a massive disappointment.