For all the talk about Linkin Park killing off nÃ¼ metal on the upcoming Minutes to Midnight, it’s rather puzzling that the first sound you hear on the album is the crackle of a needle hitting a record.
After all, one of the, uh, tenets of the genre was the head-bopping DJ – think guys like LP’s Joe Hahn or Limp Bizkit’s Lethal – the dude responsible for, literally, putting the needle on the record (and for appearing out of place in all the press photos). So was co-frontman Chester Bennington kidding when he told MTV News back in September that Midnight was the record in which LP would put the nÃ¼-metal tag to bed forever ?
Well, sort of. Because while there’s certainly way less, oh … I don’t know … DJ-itude on the album, there’s still plenty of Hahn to go around (via a spate of spooky synths and electronic bric-a-brac) not to mention an abundance of thundering guitars and vocal grrr-owls. But it’s perhaps due to the influence of producer Rick Rubin – whom the guys credit, via some rather expansive liner notes, with changing the way they wrote and arranged songs – that Midnight also sounds a lot like a band detonating its roots, picking up the rubble and building a brand-new monolith with the remains. “Wake,” the opening track, is an ominous-sounding instrumental that kicks off with the aforementioned needle crackling, picks up a fog of spacey keyboards, then slowly builds steam before erupting into the band’s near-trademark guitar crunch. The din quickly fades away into a series of handclaps and the multi-tracked sound of keys jingling, an impromptu backbeat that signifies the beginning of song number two, “Given Up,” which showcases Bennington’s newfound lung capacity (wailing “What the f— is wrong with me?!?!”) and the capable guitar work of Brad Delson, who summons a firing squad’s worth of machine-gun guitars.
“Leave Out All the Rest” is a big-boned ballad, all dreamy electronics and heavy-hearted cello, with Bennington’s falsetto floating above it all. “Bleed It Out” is the album’s first “WTF?” moment, beginning with the sound of MC Mike Shinoda descending a flight of stairs, then entering a raucous live room and beginning to spit lyrics. The room sounds (various laughing and trash-talking) are slowly drowned out by a juke-joint piano line and the cadence of handclaps, all of which raves up to the chorus – Bennington snarling “I bleed it out!” – and then continues to build into a genuine stomper.
“It’s a song that rides the line of what you might expect from us,” Bennington said of “Bleed.” “It’s got rapping on it and a real big chorus, but it’s also got these great Motown drums and a real party vibe to it. So it’s something different too. It’s fun.”
“Shadow of the Day” is another nÃ¼-ballad, kicking off with heart-pumping electronic drums and fuzzy bass, throwing in a wave of shoe-gazing guitars and then bending into a keyboard outro that sounds like something out of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (or Coldplay’s X&Y ). The bombastic first single, “What I’ve Done,” is next, picking up from a series of synth stabs straight out of the “Halloween” movies and then rocketing off on Linkin Park’s electro-guitar frippery.
And then, just as you’re starting to wonder where the heck Shinoda is in all this, “Hands Held High,” a somber track highlighted by a rattling drum cadence and a creaky pipe organ, comes in. Sonically, it’s unlike pretty much anything the band has done before, and lyrically, it’s one of the most upfront statements LP have ever made: a full-blown attack on GW Bush, complete with Shinoda decrying the state of the country – gas is too expensive! – and mocking Bush’s “stuttering and mumbling for the nightly news to display.”
That’s followed by the chugging, alienation-by-the-numbers track “No More Sorrow” (Bennington raging against “hyp-o-critsssssss!!!!!”) and the relationship-gone-bad tune “Valentine’s Day,” which seems to hint at Bennington’s 2005 divorce. “In Between” comes next, another melancholy track featuring Shinoda belting over a cello line and a big blossom of a chorus.
“In Pieces” starts with steel drums, then wobbles a bit on some electronic boom-blip and heats up thanks to a face-melting solo courtesy of Delson.
And finally, Midnight closes with “The Little Things Give You Away,” which Bennington singled out as “the pinnacle of what we can achieve as a band” . And rightfully so. Full of mentions of “water gray through the windows” and “levees … breaking,” the song is clearly a condemnation of the government’s reaction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (“Generations disappear/ Washed away/ As a nation simply stares”). But in perhaps the biggest display of maturity on an album full of mature moments, Linkin Park don’t ever let the song morph into a full-blown assault, instead letting its subtler moments – a gently strummed acoustic guitar line, a rippling drum-and-bass exercise midway through and a disarmingly affecting vocal harmony at the end – speak volumes that no amount of power chords can.
“We were writing these harmonies before we went down to New Orleans on the first anniversary of the [Katrina] disaster,” Bennington said of “Little Things.” “And when we were down there, we were talking to these people who lived in the Ninth Ward. One of the lines, about ‘water gray, coming through the windows,’ was taken from what one older gentleman told me. The feeling I got down there was not a good one.
“For my whole life, I was spoon-fed what a great country this is, and I just didn’t get that feeling from that trip,” Bennington added. “I didn’t understand how we could spend $120 billion a year on killing people in other countries, but we only allocated $1 billion to rebuilding lives here. It really bothered me. … I felt sick about it. So I wrote the lyrics. Mike and I had a discussion, and he said, ‘Why don’t you go write about Katrina?’ So I did … and I put it to the melody we had been working on, and it just fit perfectly.”
It’s an alarmingly good song – Bennington’s right, it’s the best thing Linkin Park have ever done – the kind of thing they wouldn’t have been capable of pulling off five years ago. Though they might have spent an entire album trying to grow up, perhaps, with “Little Things,” LP finally learned that subtlety is the most mature trait of all.