The fourth album from former rap-rock bloodletters Linkin Park is 2010’s best avant-rock nuclear-anxiety concept record: a postmodern, perfectly Pitchfork-ian opus that will never earn a single Pitchfork pixel. With nothing to lose, the multi-multi-multi-platinum angst kings sink their distortion pedals into a tender oblivion, embracing the pulseless Vocoder syrup of Imogen Heap, the cuddly heavenward synths of Yeasayer, the post-apocalyptic stutter-hop of El-P, the head rush of Ibiza house. Maybe five of its 48 minutes wouldn’t get the band insta-booed off an Ozzfest stage. The easiest comparison point here is seriously Radiohead’s OK Computer—uninhibited hooks, daffy left turns, piano-soaked bathos, explorations of the human relationship with technology, a complete avoidance of metal—but A Thousand Suns has at least three songs that could be “Fitter, Happier.”
This is exactly what all bored, restless millionaire dorkballs should be doing in the post-Napster Wild West. College kids have free, instant access to the nu-noise of insta-cool underground bands, but Suns reminds us that rock stars do, too. Plus, a lack of concern about circa-2000 trifles like “record sales” means nothing is stopping Linkin Park—or any legacy artist, for that matter—from making challenging, contemporary-sounding work on a major label’s dime. Just in the last two years, Portishead’s Third was Geoff Barrow’s abrasive reinvention of Madlib and Sunn O))), the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic was a dark-hued fusion of Oneida and Black Moth Super Rainbow, the Chemical Brothers’ Further traded jock-rockin’ beats for a Spacemen 3–meets-Neu! clusterfunk, and we’re still trying to navigate the caustic drill ‘n’ bass labyrinth that is the new M.I.A. album. A Thousand Suns was going to debut at No. 1 no matter what, so Linkin Park decided to explore a softie-industrial abyss where negative space outweighs choruses, where every song seems like a curveball, where the whole thing seems like the lead-up to a mosh-pit breakdown that never comes. Space-drone intros blindly lead into other space-drone intros; the most anthemic songs are constructed without verses; Dr. Martin Luther King is sampled, electronically distorted into robo-mush, and then given a writing credit for his troubles.
But clearly, the most important change involves the further progression of their complicated relationship with hip-hop music. Iconic early-’00s hybrid theories like “Crawling” or “One Step Closer” treated Mike Shinoda like a rap-rock Sen Dogg, his quick bursts of emo-mooky rah-rah adding a chest-thumping counterpoint to the already overwrought choruses of lead vocalist Chester Bennington. But here, his two spotlight songs are more Fear of a Black Planet than a wrong turn into Crazy Town: dizzying spirals of programmed toms, brain-rattling 808 drops, and psychedelic drones. In short, an industrial approximation of actual rap music, or at least what Rick Rubin usually considers to be rap music (check those swell Wilson Pickett–style cowbells seemingly left over from “99 Problems”). Their hip-hop affectations aren’t a badge of honor, but a seamless thread treated more with reverence than curiosity: The solo during “Waiting for the End” has the cut-up delirium of Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly,” while “Robot Boy” is a gorgeous piano ballad built off the melody to T.I.’s “What You Know.”
A Thousand Suns is charged by such a diverse palette that it reads like a smart college freshman’s Facebook profile. (Likes and Interests: Aceyalone, Achtung Baby, Aesop Rock, Air, Aoki, Angel Dust, Animal Collective, Atari Teenage Riot, Atlanta hip-hop . . .) The band is so eager to show off their new clothes that they wear them all at once. The unlikely result captures all the searing art noise, rapturous swoongaze, bloggy distorto-house, and rumbling dystopia-rap clogging your On-the-Go Playlist, but mutated by major-label arena rockers with no time for indie rock’s terminal afflictions of coyness, half-assery, bet-hedging, and irony. Achtung, ’80s babies!