Did you think that Linkin Park's new album, A Thousand Suns, was a record you could dismiss before you listened to it? Christopher R. Weingarten, a critic for The Village Voice, says that's a mistake.
Linkin Park spent the early 2000s as one of the figureheads of rap-rock, the kind of band that made it so easy to draw a line between mainstream and indie rock. That membrane is still less permeable than the lines between indie and other genres that the "anti-rockist" wave of criticism has made it a point to dissolve. Weingarten suggests that if critics were never going to rehab Linkin Park's reputation, the band decided to take on the task itself (in case you doubt the band's commitment, they've made sure you can buy A Thousand Suns: The Full Experience on iTunes, a single 48-minute track of the entire album).
In his review, Weingarten never exactly recommends A Thousand Suns (well, he calls it "2010's best avant-rock nuclear-anxiety concept record," a phrase designed to limit and deter the potential audience), but he makes a compelling case that not only does it contain music that people who might have put Linkin Park in their "dislikes" column might actually enjoy, it's a model for how to grow as a band:
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.
I've never been a Linkin Park hater, but I kind of shrugged off the album as a bland inevitability when Suns topped the album charts a few weeks ago. But Weingarten's review did what a good critic's work is supposed to: it made me want to listen. An obvious starting point was "Waiting For the End," the single that Weingarten compared to Three 6 Mafia's "Stay Fly." It's recorded well, densely textured, and walks a line between inspirational and at-sea. From that description, it could be an indie fave like Bon Iver. If I flipped to it on the radio halfway through the song, I'd have thought it was a more restrained, midwestern-American Muse. It barely exists in the same universe as Limp Bizkit.
In New York magazine's Vulture blog, critic Nitsuh Abebe does something similar, bringing a band in from the fringes of my interest, but from the opposite direction. South African rap group Die Antwoord has been the talk of the Internet for the last six months or so. Abebe writes:
When their first videos started going around, the North American bits of the Internet practically fell over themselves trying to figure out what the hell was going on with it all. And the result, for the most part, was exactly the kind of slack-jawed, mystified awe and amazement that gets people to forward YouTube links to their friends: "You have to see this."
I managed to turn away from those YouTube links, probably because Die Antwoord videos make the trio look like the exact people you don't want to meet when you descend stairs into a darkened basement to investigate a strange noise.
When its debut album, $O$ (actually a compilation of earlier tracks put together for release in the bits of North America that want to purchase something they've seen on the Internet) came out this week, it seemed that critics had decided to let leave Die Antwoord to the basement-freaks on the web. No reviews in The New York or Los Angeles Times, not a single search result on Metacritic.
In a way, that's one of the issues Abebe deals with in his assessment of the group. He looks at its reputation for being confusing, exotic, hilarious and off-putting, and then tries to come to terms with how much of that persona is intended by the group's members:
When the group made a video responding to the question of whether they were "fake," it had — like a lot of their videos — the pacing and feel of a mockumentary. And in that original clip — now approaching 4 million views on YouTube — Ninja explains that "Die Antwoord" means "the answer"; when someone asks "the answer to what?" there's exactly the right length of silence before he says it's the answer to "whatever, man." He's so doggedly deadpan he seems like he's doing improv. And maybe he is — though if it's all just a concept, it's one this group has doubled down on, hard-core, enough to make it exciting and real again.
Part of Abebe's point seems to be that with a band like this, it can be hard to spin the music away from the art project/car crash nature of the musicians' act. Reviews like this one make it easier to find the points where the act, the music and its audience intersect.