So, earlier this week, I tried to write an article on this album: A Thousand Suns by Linkin Park. And my first attempt at writing about it was going to be on “guilty pleasures”–things we like that people try to shame us for liking. Quickly, I’ve never thought there was such a thing as a guilty pleasure–if you like it, you like it and that’s that. I suppose there’s no point in writing a thousand words when Andrew WK can summarize your point in fewer than 140 characters, but there you go. Instead, since that day I planned to write that article, I did something I’ve never really done before. I’ve listened to A Thousand Suns over and over again in its entirety. And I’ve realized something: A Thousand Suns is a brilliant album by a band that isn’t quite sure how to handle its own ideas.
If I were to make a top five list of artists best suited to write a concept album about nuclear holocaust, I’d put Devo first, Nine Inch Nails second, screw around and fill space for three and four and round out the list with Linkin Park at five. See, that sounds like an insult–arrghaghagh put’em low on the list, arrghaghagh–but I can’t even think of three acts suited to this subject matter. Linkin Park, with their blend of hip hop, metal, grunge and new wave, have built a sound that is truly representative of modern America. It’s synthesized, processed and produced as pop music–elaborate, layered, nearly symphonic in its scale and arrangement. But it possesses a legitimate attitude that artists with similar production values–your Katy Perrys, Keshas and Lady Gagas–don’t have. Not to mention, it’s easy to forget that the guys in Linkin Park are not stupid. Far from it. The people themselves are actually kinda bright, obsessed with technology and its interactions with modern life. So what part of that band doesn’t sound ideal for a concept album about a thoroughly modern fear: nuclear holocaust?
And indeed Linkin Park prove that they’re capable on this album–for the most part. A Thousand Suns is the kind of work of art you look at and wonder why it had to go wrong at the last second. So much of this record is the kind of music that sends legitimate chills down my spine when I finally notice its meaning. For half of its runtime, the lyrics are more clever than I am. Want a for instance? Lemme give you a for instance. For instance, there’s this really awesome narrative and lyrical threading thing they do on this album. It starts with the very first song, “The Requiem”. The album as a whole opens with two central musical figures: a tolling piano note, echoing into the background and the lyrics “God save us, every one/will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns/for the sins of our hands, the sins of our tongue/the sins of our fathers, the sins of our young”.
These represent two things: the tolling piano is the anticipation of the bomb, reinforced by the phase and flange effects on the background synths; the lyrics represent its detonation and the moment before destruction is wrought. “The Requiem” ends in a countdown, and the moment it ends, the lyrics stop, representing the destruction. To drive this home is J. Robert Oppenheimer’s recollection of his reaction to the initial nuclear testing. The bomb has exploded and we’ve seen its mighty power–a power which continues to work its way through the textures of the rest of the album. The lyrics of the next song, “Burning in the Skies”, represent the loss of innocence after the initial testing. As the album progresses, we come to a track titled “Jornada Del Muerto” whose lyrics are in Japanese. And yeah, that sounds really backwards–a Spanish title with Japanese lyrics. The lyrics themselves translate to “Lift me up/let me go” and Jornada Del Muerto was the location of the initial nuclear bomb tests.
This gains a terrifying context in the third- and second-last songs on this album, “Fallout” and “The Catalyst”. “Fallout” consists of vocoded lyrics from “Burning in the Skies”, reminding us emotionally of the great effect the bomb has had. And “The Catalyst”–well, it begins as a jittery, hard to follow, inconsolable stack of double time rhythms and hard scratch riffs over luxuriously large synth textures. The lyrics reflect those of “The Requiem”, beginning “God bless us, every one/we’re a broken people living under loaded gun/and it can’t be outfought, it can’t be outdone/it can’t be outmatched, it can’t be outrun”. The meaning of this is actually surprisingly more literal than fans believe. The loaded gun isn’t a metaphor for governmental control–it’s an analogy to the bomb itself. At the moment, a downright frightening number of countries have armed nuclear weapons.
“And when I close my eyes tonight/two symphonies of blinding light”. A story from that first test is the man who was wearing protective sunglasses in a fly-over when one of the lenses popped out immediately before detonation. To spare his sight, he threw his hand over his closed eye and saw a crystal clear x-ray vision of the bones in his hand. “Will we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns?” indeed. “The Catalyst” continues its brutal assault on anything calm or sane until halfway through, the tempo comes crashing down to a quarter its original pace and all lyrics are forsaken for two phrases: “Lift me up/let me go”. At Jornada Del Muerto, when the bomb went off, the same sounds were heard, but we never understood them. We still recognize the melody, the meaning of the feeling when it resurfaces, but by then, it’s too late. The bomb has detonated, and we burn inside the fires of a thousand suns.
And all of this demonstrates the powerful good ideas at the heart of A Thousand Suns. Here’s a band that doesn’t underestimate its audience, that uses melodic and harmonic anchors to represent ideas, that uses lyric to represent emotion and cultivate it in the listener. It’s a downright shocking amount of depth for a Linkin Park album, and I say that with the highest respect. But “The Catalyst” isn’t the last song. And here’s where A Thousand Suns goes terribly, terribly wrong.
In addition to the really good, really top quality ideas present in this album are several songs that are off-concept. Early offenders such as “When They Come for Me” miss the mark by being about Linkin Park as a band instead of about our modern world. “Robot Boy”, while a fantastic experiment with unconventional song structure, is off-topic. “Waiting for the End” and “Blackout”, quality aside, only maintain tangential relation to the point at hand. But none of these are the absolute worst of Linkin Park’s mistakes on A Thousand Suns. No, the worst moment is saved for the final song on the album, “The Messenger”.
Emotionally, on an album like this, it’s important to send the listener home feeling more calm than “a nuclear bomb just detonated over a major city now millions are dead”. And musically, “The Messenger” is spot-on with this. It lets you off the hook, in a way, tells you it’s not your fault and all of this can be prevented. Except, it does so literally, and it does so not by calling for a unilateral disarm across every nation. It says it’s okay to be depressed because Linkin Park are here, and Linkin Park will listen. And you can miss the point in a lot of places on your own album and get away with it. Pink Floyd have done it, Green Day have done it–everyone’s had a couple plain songs on what’s meant to be a concept album from time to time. But the time not to have a plain you-can-overcome-your-first-world-problems song is when you’ve written what could be a powerful modern statement on why we should still fear the bomb and still work to wipe nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.
Linkin Park have grown a lot from their dyed spikey hair days. Every release shows them closer to becoming a real, smart and fantastic group capable of true art. But to end it all with “when life leaves us blind/love keeps us kind” is like scoring an in-park home-run to be tagged out at home plate. Just–disappointing, really.