A few years back, Southern California rock band Linkin Park contacted Harvard Business School. They were concerned: The record industry was in a meltdown. Rock radio, a vital promotional engine for the band, was dead. Old revenue streams, such as album sales, were drying up. The new ones were unreliable.
After a semester of independent study, a team from the school came up with some ideas. Linkin Park needed to diversify. Music would now be just one not-particularly-consequential element of their brand. “To be clear, we are still in the music business,” Kiel Berry, an executive at the group’s relaunched innovation company, Machine Shop, wrote in a post on the school’s blog, “but creating and selling music now plays more of a supporting role in our overall business mix.”
Linkin Park set about enacting the team’s suggestions, mostly to great success: They reached out to influencers, expanded their brand’s merchandising opportunities and set up a venture capital firm similar to Bono’s Elevation Partners. (They were early investors in Lyft — Linkin Park will be fine.)
And now they have released “One More Light,” the band’s first album since the Harvard overhaul. As an artistic work, it’s fine, a subtle and contemplative pop album from a band not known to be any of those things. As an exercise in branding, it’s a disaster roughly akin to Linkin Park dragging their entire fan base, kicking and screaming, off an overbooked United flight.
“One More Light” fits uneasily into the band’s omnivorous catalogue. Linkin Park’s official 2000 debut, “Hybrid Theory,” is the most consequential rap-metal album ever released, and one of the most successful rock albums of all time. The group has spent the last 16 years copying it (2003’s “Meteora”), ignoring it (2010’s “A Thousand Suns,” a lightly experimental concept album about nuclear war), and trying to outrun it (2007’s arena-rock-goes-electro “Minutes to Midnight”).
They returned to their early work with their 2014 album, “The Hunting Party,” only to find Twenty One Pilots working the same patch of land. “One More Light” is a goodbye to all that, in a way that feels foreign and final. It’s a beyond-fervid embrace of the pop sonics the band has flirted with for years. It contains little rap and even less metal. There are thoughtful acoustic songs and rote electro-pop songs. At times, it sounds as though the Chainsmokers and Simon and Garfunkel had a really terrifying baby.
In their early days, every Linkin Park song was like a wounded animal, an authentic expression of young punk angst that was bro-centric but effective. They weren’t always geniuses, but you knew that they meant it. But, with most of the band’s members now on the other side of 40, they’re fumbling with the uncertainties common to many artists in the late middle age of their careers.
“One More Light” offers no answers to questions that may be unanswerable: How does a band, built for the efficient expression of a very specific kind of youthful misery, stay relevant now that they are rock stars and husbands and fathers? Do they play to the audience that grew up with them, and presumably has many of the same concerns, or do they peddle an increasingly unconvincing version of teen alienation to a new generation of Twenty One Pilots spillover fans? What would the team at Harvard Business School say?
This is what they shouldn’t have done: hire a gaggle of professional songwriters previously employed by Britney Spears and Justin Bieber. They don’t know the answers, either. For Linkin Park, who seldom used outside writers, it’s a way to split things down the middle. “One More Light” is peppered with vague, meme-able niceties about perseverance and missing home and the beauty of the stars that could mean anything, that will appeal to anyone, or no one.
It’s virtually unrecognizable as a Linkin Park album. The band’s guitars are muted, its usual volcanic rage downgraded to a mild pique, its co-frontman, rapper Mike Shinoda, mostly absent. Vocals are often manipulated to the point of ridiculousness — the electro-poppy “Talking to Myself” sounds like the work of a ’90s boy band. The lumbering first single “Heavy” emulates, in feel if not in sound, the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” with Kiiara standing in for Halsey.
“One More Light” isn’t awful. Its acoustic title track is wistful and warm; the gauzy “Battle Symphony” and the electro-rap “Good Goodbye” are both solid, even if guests Pusha T and grime artist Stormzy do most of the heavy lifting on the latter. But sincerity is the only real currency Linkin Park has, and this is the first album they’ve ever made that feels false. There’s nothing here worth capsizing a brand over.