Album: If Not Now, When?
In Brief: The title track says it best: “We’ve been good, even a blast/But don’t you feel like something’s missing here?”
The year 2011 has brought a few comebacks from dormant bands that sort of fell off the map several years ago. Most of them never actually broke up, but a lot of them came back from long hiatuses that had me compulsively checking their websites, Facebook pages, Wikipedia, etc. for any news of an update, because their last records had left me longing for more in a good way. A lot of these comebacks have actually been disappointing thus far, but none of them so much as Incubus. After a five-year break since the diverse, weird, and wonderful Light Grenades, they’ve returned with a total snoozefest of a record – one that, even at the band’s mellowest moments, I never would have previously assumed they were capable of.
Now let’s make one thing crystal clear. I am most emphatically not one of those fans who has been griping since the turn of the century about the band ditching their old hybrid funk/hard rock sound from S.C.I.E.N.C.E. Shoot, that was a fun record, and I could understand why the shift to more of a radio-friendly vibe on Make Yourself and especially Morning View might have upset some old-school fans. But Make Yourself was where I first dipped my toes in the stream, and Morning View was where I got fully immersed, so I grew accustomed to a version of Incubus that excelled at both the heavy and rhythmic stuff, and the soft and dreamy stuff. Even when A Crow Left of The Murder proved to be all over the map to the point of severe inconsistency, I knew I could count on Incubus for delivering at least half an album’s worth of fascinating sonic trickery, largely due to the sheer instrumental skill of guitarist Mike Einziger and drummer Jose Pasillas, and of course the malleable vocals and oddball lyrical musings of Brandon Boyd. Just as easily as Incubus could feel like they were selling out and taking the easy “lead singer as sex symbol” route, they’d come back a track later and do something truly beguiling. As a modern rock act popular in the mainstream, I felt like they still threw the rules out the window on a lot of occasions, often for the better when weird sounds collided in intoxicating ways. Morning View and Light Grenades ranked among my favorite records of the last decade for this exact reason.
And now, nearly five years later, come If Not Now, When?, a record whose title makes you want to believe it’s all about seizing the moment, filled to the brim with exciting songs from a band who was bursting at the seams to get some music back out there after a long vacation. Instead, it’s a record that comes floating in lazily, and stays mostly in that mode until finally kicking into high gear near the very end. It’s a move that might make sense for Incubus, if the album were so experimental as to exist on a separate plane from past Incubus records, completely redefining the band in the same way that a record like Kid A did for Radiohead. But it’s not that. And the band is very adamant that they didn’t want this – that they steered clear from making an experimental record, and also from making a heavy record, on purpose. So what is this new Incubus disc? Is it a pop record? Maybe smooth R&B? Or some good old laid-back acoustic stuff? Eh, not really. You’ll hear shades of all of these things as the band seems to practically whisper their way through one medium-to-slow track after another, but no matter what genre label you put on it, it truly fails at being exemplary of the genre. If Not Now, When? is not trying to be a good rock record, but it sure as hell isn’t a good pop record, or really a good anything record. Try as I might to appreciate its subtle nuances, I can’t help feeling like it’s largely comprised of the more simplistic “breather” songs that Incubus would put in between the more intense ones on previous records. Remember “Love Hurts”? That was a rather mediocre track on the mostly excellent Light Grenades (and much to my frustration, one of its only radio hits), but here, it’d stand head and shoulders above most of the material Incubus has to offer.
And that troubling observation brings to mind a deeper dilemma – who was clamoring for Incubus to change their sound? It couldn’t have been the label, because past Incubus hits generally split the difference between the rock songs and the mellower pop songs – for every “Drive” or “Love Hurts”, there’s an “Anna-Molly” or “Megalomaniac”. Often when a band pulls out a radically different record such as this, it can be due to one personality in the band (generally the lead singer) being overbearing and taking the spotlight away from other talented people in the ensemble. It feels an awful lot like Brandon Boyd’s doing this here, which is particularly frustrating given the guitarist, DJ (seriously guys, this band still has a DJ, not that you’d be able to tell anymore), and rhythm section that are going almost completely to waste. But he already put out his own solo record last year, so what gives? Perhaps one could argue that they’re all growing up and getting more interested in the laid-back singer songwriter stuff, but you know, I’m a middle-aged dude who actually listens to a lot of that stuff, and who still thinks this record fails to do it well. So no matter how you try to spin it, If Not Now, When? comes across as a record designed out of sheer indifference. Who knows – its contents probably hold deep personal significance for Brandon or even for everyone in the band. But simply put, these songs don’t all belong on the same record. By about five tracks in, you’ll be screaming for any momentary sign of genuine energy to come along and make a grab for your rapidly drifting attention. For me to say that, being a guy who is generally quite patient with “slow-burner” records that aren’t easily understood or appreciated on the first try… well, that’s saying quite a lot.
1. If Not Now, When?
I’m not at all bothered by rock records opening with slow, ominous tracks – Light Grenades did this with the offbeat “Quicksand”, which took me a while to appreciate, but it was the prelude to something really great. So if I didn’t know what to expect, I’d be perfectly OK with this chilled out opener, which tiptoes in carefully, Ben Kenney‘s bass line sounding like the kind of thing that might be a soundtrack to a marathon watched in slow motion. That, the warped strings, and some chimey keyboards that come in during the bridge are honestly the only notable instrumental bits in this song – there are guitar and drums, but they’re relegated to a supporting role. For a song about seizing the moment, about getting off your butt and saying “enough is enough” in a situation you’ve previously been complacent with, it sure could stand to live on the edge a bit more. Brandon’s lyrics aim to be as insightful as similar “take control of your life” musings from Incubus’s past, but the oomph isn’t quite there. I’d be fine with that if it weren’t the par for this album’s course.
2. Promises, Promises
So, say you’re a hot rock star known for performing shirtless a lot, and you want to sound somewhat introspective? Well, maybe try writing a song from the point of view of one of your groupies. That’s a clever idea, right? I suppose it could be, if the band had taken the road less traveled with it. Unfortunately, they’ve given it a dull mid-tempo arrangement, led off by rather dull piano chords, as if the groupie in question had Brandon confused with a second-rate Jason Mraz wannabe who bangs out hackneyed songs at a hotel bar for a living. That is to say, it’s a fairly dull song about wanting to get laid with no strings attached. Sure, for a second it’s clever as Brandon croons “promise me only one thing, would you?/Just don’t ever make me promises”, but for the most part, it’s just a lazy attempt to justify pure hedonism. And sure, rock & roll and hedonism seem to go hand-and-hand on many occasions… but such a subject calls for a much more raucous soundtrack, at the very least.
3. Friends and Lovers
Mike Einziger sort of emerges from the background here, if only to deliver a lead guitar melody that, despite its fast-fingered nature, manages to sound rather fluid and sleepy. The band’s been stuck in the no-man’s land between true rockers and true ballads for three tracks now, which is getting downright annoying. Over this uninteresting mush masquerading as soft rock music, brandon delivers some of his most uninspired “let’s stick together”-type lyrics, retreading ground that already put him at risk of redundancy on lesser tracks like “Diamonds and Coal” and “11am” from earlier albums. The thesis here: “We should never have to defend being friends and lovers.” Is that like, a foreign concept to people? It seems like such a “duh” statement to me that it’s not even worth writing a song about. Like, how could you love someone you’re not even friends with? (Unless, if by “love”, you mean “have lots of sex with”. I guess that’s totally possible. But I’m trying to be charitable and not assume such things.)
How sad is it that, when Mike Einziger’s vaguely metallic guitar plucking and Jose Pasillas’s snare-heavy drum beat get into gear, I actually find a momentary bit of excitement despite knowing this would still be one of the most laid-back tracks on any other Incubus album? I guess we need a little more gravitas here, because Brandon’s about to get all political. Here he rails against the man in more or less the same way he’s been doing his entire career, most notably on the bulk of Make Yourself, except with far less energy this time around. He’s bitter over someone who won’t let him have his fun because he’s not “a God-fearing white American”. Presumably he’s speaking on someone else’s behalf, because I know him to be at least two of these three things, but shoot, why not just go the whole nine yards and throw “straight” in there while you’re at it? I can sort of get behind the political message – some folks want this to be a free country only for folks who are like them. But it’s delivered in just about the most hackneyed way possible. I’m momentarily distracted from that when Einziger whips out a halfway-decent electric guitar solo over the last half of the song or so. Still, we’ve only reached an energy level roughly rivaling “Dig”, and I loved “Dig”, but that was a smooth, cleverly written love song, and this is just upstart, freshman year of college, highly generalized politicizing, to the point where it lacks real teeth.
Incubus goes sort of acoustic for this one – I know Mike Einziger to be just as much of a wizard on that instrument as he is on the electric, but his rather pedestrian strum and the clunky drum beat don’t show much in the way of innovative musicianship. Lesser bands could play this stuff in their sleep, and I often can’t say that about even Incubus’s most radio-ready songs. Anyhow, brandon’s pining about some girl named Erica who apparently left him (or, excuse me, left the male protagonist of the song) for some guy named Isadore. (That’s right, Isadore is a guy’s name. Look it up.) He’s not too happy about being cuckolded, so he resolves “I won’t rest until the world knows the name Isadore.” Again, this is entry-level writing – any guy could write a song more or less like this about being dumped for the competition. Whatever more nuanced personal history might be behind it, that gets lost in the generic lyrics which are at odds with the specific names. Why bother? At least the electric guitar that chimes in near the end of the song has some bite to it. That’s not enough to keep it from fading away politely at the end as pretty much every song on the album does, though. It’s like it would kill these guys to leave any of the edges ragged!
6. The Original
Is this a ballad? It’s so hard to tell where we cross the line between the mid-tempo stuff and the half-power ballads, but this one seems like it wants to be something moodier about halfway through, so we’ll just call it a ballad for variety’s sake. The first half is fairly unmemorable, despite Einziger doing his best to pick out a variety of interesting guitar notes – once again, the edges are so rounded that he comes across as little more than a session player. Brandon is busy idolizing a girl who is like all the other girls he’s ever liked in any of his songs, in that she’s not like any of the girls he’s ever liked before. (That is to say, he’s written on this theme before, and much more convincingly – take “Nice to Know You”, for example.) So we get a few minutes of him unoriginally calling her the unoriginal before – oh my goodness, I cannot believe it – the guitars very suddenly get a lot more edgy and thrashy, and the song suddenly slows down a notch, taking on a heavier, more dirge-like quality. This is a good idea in theory – it sidesteps expectations and gives the song character. Unfortunately, this makes the bridge and final chorus drag a bit – it’s like they got their equipment to distort all the sounds the way they wanted, but were still feeling too lethargic to do anything all that interesting after going to all the trouble. So yeah, this one’s the bottom of the barrel thus far. But trust me, there’s still room to dig deeper.
A joyous call of “Whoo-ooh-ooh!” and acoustic guitar in an unusual time signature – alright, this could be interesting! Maybe another “Paper Shoes” in the making? Nope, turns out it’s more like “Mexico” at a slightly faster tempo. What I thought was unusual turns out to be standard 6/8, just picked out in a way that fools me temporarily, and aside from Mike and Brandon, the rest of the band is nowhere to be found. So it’s basically a folk song, an an uninspired one at that. For a song about someone so bold and flirtatious, the end result feels anything but – at two minutes and a quarter, it’s little more than an interlude recorded on a lark while the other three guys were out to lunch.
8. In the Company of Wolves
So we follow up the album’s shortest song with its longest, one which wanders out into an endless desert wasteland with just about the world’s dullest guitar chords and most interesting drumbeat, andsddddddddseffffeegfwgesdgd – oh, sorry, I fell asleep on my keyboard for a few seconds there! Look, I’m not one who usually complains about slow songs, because they’re often where a band known for being heavier and punchier gets to open up and show you a bit more nuance. But Incubus seems to have magically forgotten that they ever had much in the way of nuance. In addition to being nowhere near as awesome as its title, this song seems to also forget that the trick it pulls – changing up the mood halfway through to make things “edgier” – is something they already tried and failed at two songs ago. There’s a real weariness in this song – a death of innocence, if you will. It certainly deserves more drama, more angst, more witty reflection – more something than the repetitive dirge that it falls into somewhere around the four-minute mark. You think stuff’s about to get real when dissonant strings begin to stir up and there’s a momentary increase in the volume level – but then we get spit out onto a vast grey landscape populated by little other than Ben Kenny playing the same damn bass note over and over again while Brandon whispers about it being the longest night of his life. (I guess I’ll make the obvious joke: IT’S MINE TOO!!!) There are some space-aged keyboards noodling about, and the guitars gradually grow in both volume and distortion, and you know, this could actually be a wonderfully trippy little instrumental odyssey if they’d bother to do something other than play the same six-note motif ad nauseum. Incubus has recorded more ill-advised songs in the past, I guess, but this one wins the award for sheer dullness, despite clearly trying hard to make up for lost time in its last few minutes.
What the hell – is that an actual rap verse? And a drum beat that dares to approach triple-digit bpms? Wow, by the standards of the rest of this album, things suddenly got awesome. Ben Kenny suddenly comes alive with some funky bass licks, and Brandon’s voice suddenly pops with the manic energy of much better Incubus songs from yesteryear. Honestly, it’s a pale reflection of a sound fans once knew and loved, but I’ll take what I can get. Fittingly, it’s an ode to a girl who is edgy, fashionable, event a bit violent in her expression of individualism. The rhythm section defines the song much more than whatever weird mess Mike Einziger’s churning out on the guitar – but hey, it isn’t standard power chords played as if the band is stuck in molasses, so I can’t complain too much. Weirdly, there’s no point where the song really “kicks in” – it’s all roll and very little rock. (Think “Priceless” on painkillers.) It’s unique among Incubus songs, and I’d probably find this interesting had it appeared on any of their other albums, so I guess I’ll stop nitpicking it. Except for how it fades out at the end. Fadeouts are such a boring, corporate way to end what should be an energetic song.
It’s saying something that the folks at Incubus’s record label had to dig as far back in the album as track 10 to actually find a viable radio single. And I’m not saying that Incubus should shove their obvious radio singles right up front or anything, but all the same, it’s downright weird how bottom-heavy this album is, with its two most comparatively lively songs way at the back, with this one being the sole “rocker” in a sense that’s remotely traditional for Incubus. The shifting rhythms and the guitar riffs that squiggle rough figures around them remind me of several older songs by the band – “Circles”, “Just a Phase”, maybe even a bit of “Nice to Know You” if I stretch my imagination enough. Problem is, the lyrics about feeling overwhelmed and left behind by the rest of the world are uninspired and repetitive, to the point where most of the chorus is “Out of sight, out of mind” repeated endlessly. The way that nearly everything but the beat and some half-hearted whistling falls away for the bridge isn’t encouraging, either. It’s the most guitar-driven number Incubus has put out in five years, and it still feels like it’s struggling to stay fully awake.
11. Tomorrow’s Food
Alright, so if you’re gonna do a trippy, spacious song built around little more than a guitarist and a vocalist, then this is probably a better way to do it. Einziger’s in the same “fluid mode” that he’s been in for most of the album – still playing electric, but letting most of the notes slip through like water, and here, it actually works in the song’s favor. Maybe it’s the ghostly backing vocals and Brandon’s eerie warnings about the end of the world or the lack of it – it gives the song a Twilight Zone sort of feeling to it as it reminds us of our own mortality. The world will go on, contrary to the dire warnings of would-be profits and hucksters out to make a buck on survival gear, but eventually, we all have to own up to our place in the never-ending food chain. Even if the thought of becoming cosmic mulch sort of squicks you out, it’s worth sticking around for the instrumental coda, in which Einziger’s quivering arpeggio meets a looming string section. Against all odds, this ends the album with a touch of class and creativity that’s been sorely lacking throughout most of it.
Honestly, I really thought Incubus was one of those bands that I’d be willing to stick with for the long haul. Their creative restlessness has generally intrigued me even when it’s caused other fans to throw up their hands in frustration. Maybe now I’m the curmudgeonly fan griping about why things can’t be the way they used to be, while new fans who just wouldn’t get the old stuff are now flocking to Incubus concerts in droves. But somehow, I doubt it. Most of this stuff doesn’t even seem bred for live performance, nor does it seem like an inventive exploration of the studio space. So I just don’t know what’s there to really grab anybody the way Incubus might have in the past by doing something different, something noticeably offbeat. If this is the new direction Incubus wants to take, I can only hope that they take another five years off in order to regroup and reconsider the mess they’ve made.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
If Not Now, When? $1
Promises, Promises $.50
Friends and Lovers $0
The Original $0
In the Company of Wolves -$.50
Tomorrow’s Food $1.50
Brandon Boyd: Lead vocals, percussion
Mike Einzinger: Guitars, backing vocals
DJ Chris Kilmore: Turntables, keyboards
Ben Kenney: Bass, backing vocals
Jose Pasillas II: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: