[Album Review] Mike Shinoda – Post Traumatic [LP]

According to the Oxford dictionary, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is “…a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.” In the months that followed the shocking and truly unexpected passing of Linkin Park front man Chester Bennington in July 2017, the surviving band members and many of their fans likely encountered varying forms of PTSD, with many struggling to accept his passing and wondering exactly what impact this loss would have not just on the band members, but their creative, musical and personal futures as well.

Nowhere is this pull between yin and yang and the struggle to find a path forward illustrated more personally or beautifully than on the aptly named Post Traumatic (LP) – due for release June 15th – which was developed over a several month period following Chester’s passing. This collection of 16 raw and in the moment songs follows the release of the Post Traumatic (EP) which was released on January 25. On Post Traumatic, listeners serve as de facto grief counselors following Mike on his journey, with every song serving as a counseling session for the Linkin Park singer, an in the moment statement of where his headspace may have been during the particular period that song was written. There’s a certain amount of confusion, anger, denial and guilt that pervades the first half of the album as our narrator struggles to accept a new life that he never wanted, imagined, or even asked for. In losing Chester, Mike lost someone he not only considered a best friend, but a brother and a longtime collaborator as well. Anyone who has ever lost someone of massive importance to them can attest that in the weeks and months that follow said passing, the shattered life that comes after that tragic loss can sometimes be filled with promising ups, and sudden devastating downs that will knock the wind completely out of your sails.

The past 18 months have certainly proven this point as we’ve began to shed a light on the culture of mental health, and our urgent need to erase the stigma surrounding it while discussing the effect such an illness can have on the human mind, even for those in the limelight who have been portrayed to “have it all”. There’s this ignorant belief that money, fame and success can bring happiness, and if the deaths of Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Avicii, Kate Spade, and most recently Anthony Bourdain have showcased anything, is that sometimes people live with pain that is hidden behind a convincing mask of happiness and contentment. As someone who has suffered from mental health struggles, suicidal ideation and depression since a young age, this is a battle I, and many others likely know all too well.

In Post Traumatic, Mike Shinoda has taken the admirable and inspiring first steps of bringing his battle to the forefront. While he has been careful to admit that he never suffered from the demons Chester had, Mike showcases an incredible openness on this album to discuss his struggles to function without his best friend, and the process it took to learn how to be happy and have fun again. Rather than grieve in silence, Mike has removed the veil and his decision to do so has proven helpful for those struggling to overcome their own personal losses. In the intro track “Place to Start”, Mike confronts this ‘new normal’ head on as he explores his uncertainty over how to continue his life without his best friend, when so much of it was tied to the work they created together:

“Did somebody else define me? Can I put the past behind me? Do I even have a decision? Feeling like I’m living in a story already written. Am I part of a vision made by somebody else? Pointing fingers at villains but I’m the villain myself…”

Whether it’s on the unflinchingly auto-biographical “Over Again” where Mike discusses, in the moment, his fear and anxiety before and after the Hollywood Bowl show, or on “Nothing Makes Sense Anymore” where he paints a picture of a personal world turned upside down, it is clear to the listener that the journey to get to the point of this album has been a difficult one. It may be tough for most to contemplate the world Mike must have on his shoulders and the difficult questions about the band and his own future that he must now face. How do you figure out the answers to the questions you never wanted to find yourself facing in the first place? This is made all the more challenging by the fact that grief can be both deceiving and confusing. Grief can lure you into a false sense of security, thinking you’re finally okay, only to tackle you when you least expect it, as vividly described in the track “Over Again”:

“I get tackled by the grief at times that I would least expect. I know what I should be doing when I’m singing but instead. We’ll be playing through a song and I’d remember in my head. Sometimes, sometimes you don’t say goodbye once. You say goodbye over and over and over again…”

By the time the eerie and hauntingly beautiful “Brooding” instrumental comes to a close and the intro piano notes of “Promises I Can’t Keep” come in, Mike Shinoda is staring hard at his new reflection, facing the past and future head on, beginning the song with a question of “what’s the difference between a man and a monster? Is it somewhere between I can and I want to?”  Feeling guilt for the decisions he is being forced to make, he lays bare his struggle over a beat slightly reminiscent of Linkin Park’s “Good Goodbye”, delivering a message to his fans and bandmates:  “I’ve got no worse enemy than the fear of what’s still unknown, and the time’s come to realize there will be, promises I can’t keep.”

This letter to his band continues on the next track and album’s lead single, “Crossing a Line”, a song written by Mike out of the fear his bandmates may consider his decision to make his own music as a betrayal. Over the chorus he pleads for understanding as he sings “They’ll tell you I don’t care anymore, and I hope you’ll know that’s a lie. Cause I’ve found what I have been waiting for, but to get there means crossing a line, so I’m crossing a line…”

After the optimistic feeling of that track it’s easy to believe that the second half of the album will finish on a positive note. But Mike quickly reminds us how quickly positive feelings can come crashing down, as he explains his day to day struggle to live with his grief on the powerful “Hold It Together”. Discussing the awkwardness of being offered sympathies for Chester at a child’s birthday party and the effect it had on his mood, he asks for patience as he speaks to an unknown character (presumably his wife) explaining “I’m just trying to hold my shit together, together darling. I don’t know what else to try, pretend I’m in control, but I’m just trying to hold my shit together, together darling.”

The effort to carry on can often leave a person feeling drained, celebrating the small victories of getting through the day to day life, but it is often at night that the mind lets down its guard and the sad thoughts come back to play. Dreams can remind us of the past that can no longer be, tragedies that we have already faced and the futures that we fear. On the tenth track “Ghosts”, Shinoda is haunted by the unexplained, and the unknown: “And when the lights go down, I see things I can’t explain, calling out my name. The lights go down; holding every memory close, tonight is for our ghosts.” This track makes beautiful use of metaphors, as Mike appears to not just be referring to ghosts in the paranormal sense, but also to refer to refer to the memories of lives that are now gone.

With such a strong body of work already featured within the first 10 songs, it would have been easy to end the album on that note and have it serve as a brutally honest snapshot of the chaos that existed in his life within the last 11 months. But as the sonic journey in many of the early tracks has already suggested, this album was never just about Shinoda’s walk through the darkest period of his life. No, this album, even more so than his previous solo effort (Fort Minor’s 2005 The Rising Tied) is Mike at his most creatively unrestrained. Produced and written almost entirely by Mike Shinoda, with only 4 of the 16 tracks containing guest appearances and producers, Post Traumatic showcases a Shinoda who is free to make his own decisions lyrically and musically without outside suggestions, and the resulting work benefits greatly from it.

I feel that Mike has always been underrated as a writer and producer and his knack for finding the perfect sound, guest vocalists and performances is illustrated fantastically on “Make It Up As I Go” which features the incredibly unique and talented K. Flay. Some may recognize her from her 2016 hit “Blood In The Cut”, and much like the very inspired choice to feature Kiiara on Linkin Park’s 2017 hit “Heavy”, K.Flay’s incredibly unique and soulful voice lends textures to this track that makes it one of the most memorable on the album. Mike has always been strongest as a pop songwriter (after all, he’s helped craft many of Linkin Park’s biggest hits and wrote much of One More Light) and “Make It Up As I Go” certainly plays off of these strengths. In between K.Flay’s soulful performances, Shinoda raps in a partially sung style about the instability he now faces and the need to ‘make his own lane’ before diving into the track’s prechorus, stating “and they’re asking me if I can see the darkness down below, and I know it’s true I say I do, but half the time I don’t…”.

Being pulled to different extremes is seemingly a repeated motif on this record, which is demonstrated both lyrically and musically on the final five tracks. Perhaps the chaotic genre-shifting nature of this record was deliberate, but despite all the twists and turns that should have prepared me for it, I was still caught completely off guard by “Lift Off”. In this track, Mike returns to the nerdy battle rap persona that has existed on many of Linkin Park’s earliest records but seemed to be retired in the last decade in favor of a more blunt approach. Containing a very space like and dreamy atmosphere instrumentally, Shinoda lifts off into the stratosphere and fights back against the idea that this tragedy will make him retire. Rapping lines like “lift off like I’m Virgin Galactic, my Richard’s too Branson to fuck with you bastards”, he displays his humorous side, whilst recalling early Hybrid Theory/Xero era imagery with lines like “Easy as a standard anti-gravity backflip, satellite tracking can’t map out my tactics, I spit the same shit they split an atom in half with”, completing the verse with a creative line about the Space Shuttle Challenger that I won’t spoil here. It’s one of my favorite verses Mike’s done since the early 2000’s (although short!) and anyone who thought the classic Mike who wrote “High Voltage” was gone will be happy to know he can still bring it.

MGK delivers a solid verse, with some fantastic wordplay but unfortunately despite his ability on the mic and his obvious talent, he ends up being the weaker of the two features on the song. The one two punch of a recharged Shinoda, and gorgeous dream-like vocal performance of Chino Moreno makes the first half of the song the most memorable. This is not intended to be a knock on MGK, but I personally would’ve wanted a second verse from Mike as the return to scientific imagery in Mike’s raps had me feeling nostalgic and craving a fresh spin of “High Voltage”, “It’s Going Down”, or even the Xero Demo Tapes. This track felt like it should’ve been a spotlight for Mike, and will certainly be a treat for Fort Minor fans, much like the following track “I.O.U” where over a gangsta rap beat with machine gun percussion, the unflinching emcee expresses “I don’t need your respect, I’ve got history. I’m ‘81 Reagan with that nonsense miss me, father like Francis, Anakin or John Misty, not to be touched sucka – Tell ‘em take an I.O.U!”

There’s something quite inspirational about the way Mike has rebounded from a year that he lyrically has referred to as “fucked up” and of which he couldn’t wait to end (as sung on the synthesizer heavy “World’s On Fire”), and it’s something worthy of note here. Confronted with the possibility that his musical career could be in shambles, Mike very well could’ve looked at the reality that was now facing him and decided that a several year vacation from the music business was in order. Nobody would’ve blamed him in that situation, and certainly when the loss of Chester Bennington happened last July, it was what many had expected would occur. Instead, he went down the road less traveled and turned to the only thing he knew how to control – his art. From the depths of a tragic loss, Mike Shinoda clawed his way out, bruised and bloodied but stronger than ever before and in turn created a hauntingly beautiful representation of his struggles.

Sure this album doesn’t feel like a Linkin Park or Fort Minor record, nor did it take the 18 months or multiple rewrites lyrically that a Linkin Park record usually undergoes in the studio, but listening to the album’s 16 tracks you get the feeling that it never needed to be. Instead, it’s a journey which winds confusingly through sorrow, despair, resolution, and happiness. Mike addresses this on the final track “Can’t Hear You Now” where he tells the audience ”somedays it doesn’t take much to bring me down, right now I’m floating above it all” letting the world know that after a tough year, he’s finally begun to be happy again, when he raps “and I got a caption for anybody asking, that is: I’m feeling fucking fantastic.”

Perhaps for Linkin Park fans, and those currently struggling with their own losses, those very words can be a statement of hope. A reminder that as tough as it may be some days, and as hard as it may be to lose the ones we care deepest about, one day the pain will hurt a little bit less, and that someday we too can feel that same level of optimism. For nearly 20 years, in the lyrics he sung, Chester’s pain and inner fight felt like our own, and while he is no longer with us, it is safe to say he’d want us all to be happy and to take care of ourselves.

So, here’s to healing, taking better care of ourselves and most importantly: feeling fucking fantastic.

Purchase Post Traumatic Here.

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