Your Own Best Enemy
Living In the Shadow of Success

I’ve spent an awful lot of time in this column talking about expectation. It’s kind of the cornerstone on which a relationship with art is based. I’ll give you my money for the next thing you do, because the last thing you did led me to expect great things. I may not give you my money if you’ve let me down a time or two. (Usually at least two, if not more.

Expectation is all about one’s history with the creators. For example, I went to see Prometheus the other day. It’s a gargantuan sci-fi movie, and I generally stay away from those, but I plunked down my $11 for a few reasons. It was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the architects of Lost, perhaps my favorite modern television show. It was directed by Ridley Scott, who is definitely hit or miss with me, but – and this is most important – it is a prequel to one of Scott’s finest films, Alien. All of this combined led me to sit in the dark for two and a half hours and experience the story.

And lo, it was terrible. An insane, poorly-reasoned story populated by characters that never once act like real human beings, all collapsing into a pretty CGI mess. Also, it includes one of the sickest scenes of the year, which I’m still seeing in my head. (You won’t be able to un-see it.) It kind of falls over on its face about three-quarters of the way through and never gets back up. And it deftly illustrates the danger of trying something just because of the people who made it.

Neither of the albums I have on tap this week are as bad as Prometheus. But they both sort of defy expectations in the same way. Both are follow-ups to records I liked – records that, in fact, both made my 2010 Top 10 List. And both are passable, but just not as good as I was hoping they would be.

I know I surprised a lot of people by praising Linkin Park’s A Thousand Suns so effusively. Well, nearly two years later, I stand by that praise. Linkin Park gets a bad rap, and they deserve a lot of it – their first three albums are full of the type of posturing nu-metal-rap hybrid stuff that makes my ears bleed. The band has an interesting lineup and the makings of a fascinating sound, but during their peak popularity years, they used those ingredients to make a toxic, mushy soup.

But A Thousand Suns, that record is awesome. It’s fearlessly experimental, putting aside the heavy guitars and letting loose with unrestrained imagination. It’s darkly political, and it goes places musically that you’d never expect Linkin Park to go. From the Floydian ambiance of “Robot Boy” to the tribal creeping fury of “When They Come for Me” to the whiplash-inducing dance-scream-blissout journey of “Blackout” (a song no other band would create), the Linkin Parkers shot for the moon on this album, and took several giant leaps forward.

Of course, change is hard, and a sizeable chunk of their fanbase hated A Thousand Suns. To me, they had two choices on the follow-up – retrench and rewrite Hybrid Theory to please the fans, or keep going, pushing boundaries, and make something that puts A Thousand Suns to shame. I’m sad to say they’ve picked Option C: try for something in the middle. And that never, ever works.

Linkin Park’s fifth album is called Living Things. Right from the start, you can tell they’re being less ambitious – the record clocks in at 37 minutes, and it’s a rapid-fire burst of short pop tunes. Not a one breaks the four-minute mark. Sonically, they’ve attempted to plow a middle ground between the adventurousness of A Thousand Suns and the familiar rap-rock of their past. The songs are mainly in the old Linkin style, with raps from Mike Shinoda sitting next to sung verses by Chester leading into huge singalong choruses, but the focus on electronic sounds remains. It feels a little like a remixed version of their older work, but the songs are better, more concise and clear.

The first three tracks, in fact, may be a signpost pointing toward the future of Linkin Park. “Lost in the Echo,” “In My Remains,” and the single, “Burn It Down,” bring back the more traditional rap-sing-scream of their most popular work, with a decidedly electro twist. The record gets a little more experimental from there, and some of it works, like the wistful ballad “Roads Untraveled,” while some of it just doesn’t, like the spluttering mess that is “Lies Greed Misery,” or the half-hardcore “Victimized.”

In fact, when the band stretches out this time, the results are less successful. Take “Until It Breaks,” a track unlike any they’ve ever done. It’s a shapeshifting epic in 3:43, starting with a loping rap and segueing nicely into a light Bennington chorus, then morphing through several other sections, concluding with a surprisingly ambient playout. The trouble is, none of it coheres. It’s a house of cards, ready to fall over at the slightest brush. This should be the track that proves that Linkin Park is a truly ambitious band, but instead it’s evidence for the prosecution.

There is one experiment that works very well, however – in fact, it’s the album’s best song. “Castle of Glass” feels like riding a mechanical horse through an Old West landscape, its double-time drums propelling a creepy, minor-key melody. It’s all synthesizers and Shinoda’s low, even voice, but it feels layered, deeper than it seems at first. It’s one of the few tracks here that aims for new territory, and claims it.

That said, this record is undoubtedly disappointing when compared with A Thousand Suns. I wanted them to travel further down that fruitful path, but instead they’ve decided to retreat. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing – I like the fact that they’ve brought the more keyboard-driven sound back to the core of what they do. Living Things is not, on its own, a bad record, and had they released it right after Minutes to Midnight, I’d be hailing it as a fascinating step forward. But they didn’t. They released it after their best, most wildly creative work, and it can’t help but suffer in its shadow.

I have similar feelings about Jukebox the Ghost. In 2010, the Brooklyn trio released their second album, Everything Under the Sun. For most of that year, my well-informed friends (like Tony Shore and Dave Danglis) begged me to check it out, but it wasn’t until November or so that I gave it a spin. I spent a week kicking myself for not diving in earlier. Everything Under the Sun is a brilliant pop album, an out-of-nowhere stunner on the level of Ben Folds or Jellyfish. It’s that good.

And I missed it when it came out, and didn’t get the chance to give it a proper, go-get-this-now review. But I figured I’d catch them on the next cycle. Surely the next Jukebox album would be just as good, if not better?

Sadly, that’s not the case. But I don’t want to discourage you from picking it up. The third Jukebox album is called Safe Travels, and it’s quite good – it only suffers when placed next to its astounding predecessor. This time out, the songs are simpler, and the band has introduced a synth-y disco party vibe. That’s not in itself bad, but it is limiting. Where I felt the songs on Everything could (and did) go anywhere, the songs on Safe Travels stay within a couple of boxes. They’re fun boxes, though, and this album should do well for them.

Jukebox’s twin songwriters, Ben Thornewill and Tommy Siegel, use this effervescent backdrop to tackle some weighty issues on this record. Safe Travels is, in the main, a hopeful record about death and change. On the darkly funny “Dead,” Siegel asks how you know if you’ve passed on, or if you’re “stuck in a dull dream about nothing that never ends.” Thornewill takes that ball and runs with it on “Adulthood”: “I dare you to survive being grown for the rest of your life, from adulthood no one survives…”

It’s a record steeped in regret, and the lyrics are uniformly fantastic. It’s the music that suffers this time. “Adulthood,” for instance, deserved better than its vaguely martial, in-one-place tune. Again, it’s not bad – it’s perfectly hummable stuff, played with gusto. But the songs here pale in comparison to the melodic wonders on Everything Under the Sun. In some ways, this is a more grown-up album, and that suits its theme just fine. It’s just that a song like “Ghosts in Empty Houses,” fun as it is, isn’t in the same ballpark as one like “Half-Crazy.”

The album does get a lot more interesting in its final stretch. “Man in the Moon” is as pretty a song as these guys have given us, a brief acoustic song of longing. (And, yes, regret.) “Everybody Knows” is the catchiest and best song on this record, the only one that sounds like it would have fit on Everything. “Should never have let you go, everybody knows, everybody knows,” Thornewill sings over a backdrop the 1970s Paul McCartney would have adored. And it all leads to “The Spiritual,” the gospel-inflected closer, and a subtle prayer for death. The final words on the album are, “Let me go in peace.”

I do like Safe Travels. It’s a solid pop album with a lot on its mind, and should serve to break Jukebox the Ghost to a wider audience. It only suffers when held up to their last effort. Is that fair? Each album should be judged on its own merits, no question. But without Everything Under the Sun, I would not have been anticipating Safe Travels as much, and it might still be languishing unheard, along with so many others from this year. I moved it to the top of my stack because I expected greatness. I got pretty-goodness. Next time I may not care as much.

But don’t let that deter you. Check out Jukebox the Ghost. They’re a fine band, and Safe Travels is a fine record.

Next week, Fiona Apple. I don’t know what to say about it yet. I’d better figure it out, and fast. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.