“We’re building it up to break it back down,” Chester Bennington sings on the lead single from Linkin Park’s fifth studio album, and God only knows what he’s yowling about: I just sat here and watched the lyric video for “Burn It Down” six times in a row, which got me nowhere in trying to understand the nature of the flames rapper Mike Shinoda promises to fan “as your blazes burn.” In the official “Burn It Down” video, both men spontaneously combust, so maybe they had a fight or something?
Whatever the song’s meaning, the chorus of “Burn It Down” sounds like an internal assessment of Linkin Park’s current situation: These reformed rap-rock stars have described Living Things as a return to the mindset that animated the SoCal six-piece’s smash 2000 debut, Hybrid Theory, and its only-slightly-less-successful follow-up, 2003’s Meteora; it also represents a corrective to the arty excess of their last two albums, 2007’s Minutes to Midnight and 2010’s A Thousand Suns. (Inside-baseball sidebar: When Warner Bros. Records sent critics advance streams of Living Things, the label used the telling code name “Good Medicine” to stymie would-be leakers.)
Several of the 11 songs here bear out that premise, clearing away the the indie-orchestral detritus that had recently cluttered Linkin Park’s once-streamlined sound — and consequently slowed sales to the under-a-million mark. “Victimized,” for instance, is a two-minute blast of fierce digital punk, while “Skin to Bone” and “Until It Breaks” ride sleekly propulsive hip-hop beats. And with Bennington’s pained vocals and Brad Delson’s crunching guitar, “Burn It Down” definitely comes one step closer to re-engaging the band’s pissed-pubescent core. “All that I needed was the one thing I couldn’t find,” the singer admits, and what misunderstood teen can’t relate to that?
Really, though, the men of Linkin Park prove themselves shaky judges of their own work: Co-produced by Shinoda and Rick Rubin, Living Things is a retrenchment only to the extent that it foregos the tedious spoken-word passages and aimless drone-y bits of A Thousand Suns. Sonic whirligigs still abound, including the lush harmony vocals in “Roads Untraveled” and the throbbing brostep bass shudders in “Lost in the Echo”; the latter, in particular, telegraphs the addiction to fashion that Shinoda recently copped to when he told SPIN, “There are things we’ve done in our career that we wouldn’t do now, but they felt right at the time.”
What’s more, the album is strongest not at its most aggro but at its most pop-attuned, as in the dreamy (and aptly titled) “Castle of Glass” and “I’ll Be Gone,” which features strings arranged by Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy. (With Pallett assisting Linkin Park and Nico Muhly joining Usher for “Climax,” is it safe to say that brainy indie-classical dudes are having a moment in 2012?) Elsewhere, flanged Euro-house synths enliven “Tinfoil” and the practically Ke$ha-esque “Lies Greed Misery”; even “Burn It Down” feels like it might transform at one point into “Young Blood” by the Gossip Girl-friendly Naked and Famous. And then there are the ballads: swooning piano-based production numbers such as “Powerless,” in which Bennington rhymes “crimson soaking through” with “10,000 ways to lose” while Shinoda ladles out the electro-goth atmosphere like Bruno Mars on the most recent Twilight soundtrack.
In the end (to borrow a prepositional phrase the group once took to No. 2 on the Hot 100), Living Things, Linkin Park peel back nothing so much as their own leaden self-importance. That’s a victory, for sure: Whereas Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns could bog down in bad-U2 melodrama, this record retains a light-footed momentum that helps the band keep up with the Top 40 titans they occasionally echo. Good medicine? Hey, they said it.