We know, we know. You’re not allowed to admit that you like Linkin Park. It does irreparable damage to your hipster cred to even acknowledge them. Their fans are to be ostracized, repelled with Arcade Fire EPs and trendy bands from Pitchfork as one might drive back a vampire with a cross and garlic. Linkin Park is just too immature, too generic, and most of all, too mainstream to be respected by those truly “in the know”. Still, it’s hard to deny the appeal of their catchy, headbanging raprock hooks. And (very, very quietly) you might find yourself humming a chorus or muttering a lyric at work, or on the bus. Well, good news for closet LP fans – the band is not only back, but also (who would’ve thought?) getting pretty damn respectable. On Minutes To Midnight [Warner], Linkin Park hones their technique and shows a previously unknown depth in their songwriting, shifting from pure isolation and anguish to a real world, where personal problems exist side-by-side with global politics – in short, they’ve finally discovered balance.
It’s worth mentioning that Linkin Park is still Linkin Park. The much publicized claim that their nu-metal sound was “completely gone” on the new record isn’t quite true (there’s definitely a few “big, loud, angry” tracks), but the basic idea that Linkin Park wanted to convey about Minutes To Midnight is that most of it sounds very different from their earlier material. Surprisingly enough, they really did mean it. The new album has a mellower, reflective, and more experimental feel, substituting samples and drum loops for the crushing riffs of their first two albums. The guitars, still distorted, now seem to chime and reverberate over the other tracks rather than burying them. Each song has a slightly different aesthetic, but most of them are pretty chilled out. “Bleed It Out”, which is making headway as a new single, echoes “Faint” from Meteora, but gives the vocals more space – the aggressive chorus and the relentless drum beat actually play counterpoint to the instruments around them.
The detailed packaging serves to remind listeners how Linkin Park’s approach to recording creates the album’s unique sound. Unlike most bands, LP goes into the studio with only a rough idea of what will be on the record and what it will sound like. They do this because, rather than actually jamming together or sitting down to write songs, the members of Linkin Park create every scrap of an idea they have separately: they record every guitar riff, save every drum loop, and keep every sample and half-written set of lyrics. Then, when they make an album, these concepts are mixed together in the studio – changed, combined, and voted out until an album of twelve or thirteen tracks remains. The message from the band on the first pages of the booklet states that they started from over 100 song ‘ideas’ for Minutes To Midnight. Then, on the successive pages, the lyrics to each song are accompanied by a short blurb about the song’s construction. The information is brief but fascinating – the band talks about including certain vocals or rhythm samples (like the sound of jangling keys on “Given Up”) as the result of long periods of experimentation in the studio. This has been Linkin Park’s strategy for a long time, but only now is it really paying off – the album has a fresh style and sound that is much less “cluttered” than its predecessors.
Lyrically, the band has taken steps, as well. Minutes To Midnight dwells on failing relationships, but seems to be meditating, rather than ranting about them. It’s partly a function of the mellowed out sound, but the lyrics definitely have their part in giving the album its reflective tone. Also, both singer Chester Bennington and rapper/guitarist Mike Shinoda seem to have made the conscious decision to turn their lyrics outward, rather than inward. On “Hands Held High,” Shinoda kicks out two inspired rap verses on politics and war, delivering such lines as “Do you see, the soldiers, they're out today they/Brush the dust from bulletproof vests away/It's ironic, at times like this you pray/but a bomb blew the mosque up yesterday.” The album has a stunning closer in, “The Little Things Give You Away”, in which layered melodic vocals build to an awesome a capella coda. The chorus, “All you ever wanted was someone to truly look up to you/And six feet underwater I do,” sounds typically angsty for Bennington – until you read the booklet to discover that the words were written following a trip to New Orleans post Katrina, giving the song a new and haunting context.
All in all, Minutes To Midnight feels like a real departure for the band that hit it big in 2000 with the pissed-off rapcore of “One Step Closer” and “In The End.” It seems that the big break between Meteora and Midnight (interrupted only by their ill-advised hip-hop collaboration with Jay-Z) did Linkin Park some good: their new album is cooler, better, and wiser than the last two, which is a hell of an accomplishment. Minutes To Midnight is the first Linkin Park album to have a Parental Advisory for “Explicit Content” (Chester and Mike get a bit foulmouthed this time around), but perhaps that content is not “explicit” but “mature” – the band really seems to have grown up. Maybe it’s time for us to shelve our hipster pride and give Linkin Park another shot.