(*if you want to go straight to the album review itself, jump to paragraph 13. I do not normally write my reviews this way, but since Incubus is involved, I cannot help but be emotionally attached to it:)
Yes, I had finally bought my album and I wouldn’t even have bought it if not for this stupid contest I decided to join weeks after the band visited the country. The prize? A signed Incubus ticket! Unfortunately, I did not win. Well, looking at the bright side of things, at least now I have the album! I can now relate with the people who have been ranting and raving about it.
It was sometime last March when I heard that they would be releasing another album – If Not Now, When? After five long years, they would be giving birth to their newest baby and I just could not wait to hear its heartbeat! New album meant new music. New music meant world tour. World Tour meant bliss. That was, if they had not forgotten their fans here in Manila yet! Nevertheless, I still got ecstatic with the fact that my favorite band was back and was ready to rock my world again.
Rock. Yes, that is what they have been doing for the past two decades of their lives, but barely a month after I had heard about their newest album, I read an article written by vocalist Brandon Boyd himself in their website saying that INNW is Incubus’ “unabashed, romantic, lush sonic love letter to the world.” He added, “It’s darker, slower, more rich, more refined, and more involved than anything Incubus has birthed to date.” Boyd dropped many beautiful words in his statement but that one adjective that struck me the most was “slower.” “Oh my God, they are old,” I thought to myself.
There is nothing wrong with rock bands swerving to the “slow lane,” or any musician in any genre taking other “lanes” for that matter. Change is a necessary process, not just for musicians but also for all people in general. As what Boyd voices out in the track “In The Company of Wolves,”
“ something’s wrong when all remains the same.”
And don’t we all agree to that? However, the thing with change is, along with it, comes uneasiness, as it pulls one out of the familiar. When change arrives, it rips off any shred of comfort that one has (most likely) enjoyed for a substantial amount of time. It can be scary, but it’s worthwhile to stick around and see what happens next.
As for me, though I had some expectations – mainly that the album would feel more velvelty yet at the same time, silkier and that it would be more explosive and be heavily string driven thanks to Mike Einziger’s learnings of musical orchestration in Harvard – generally, I kept my mind open. I have been a fan of the band for years and I know that they could deliver all the time. I might not have been there since day one, but I have enjoyed all their releases (with the exception of “I Miss You” and “Love Hurts.” I am just not a big fan of these two tracks, unfortunately.) Whatever path they have taken, they have never disappointed me… so far.
The big revelation finally arrived as “Adolescents” hit the radio airwaves. It did not make an impression on me quite immediately, which was fine because some songs just need more time to let it bore through one’s skin and talk to one’s soul. I know that for sure because I have had many experiences with such songs. I would listen to them over and over again for many years but they would not really have a deep effect on me until the right time arrives that the lyrics would strike a chord in my life that was never there before. And I think that’s one of the curious characteristics of music: You’ll never really hear it, unless you are ready. Incubus too, in fact, started out that way for me.
I was introduced to their music through Channel [V]. I would always see their videos off Make Yourself and even liked “Pardon Me” and of course, the karaoke worthy track, “Drive,” but it would take “Warning” to let me fully realize that there was indeed something special with this band. I heard “Warning” because it was the right time for me to hear it truly. Still, I couldn’t consider myself a fan just yet. It would take the boys themselves to convert me absolutely into an Incubus supporter when they visited Manila for the first time in 2004. So essentially, I only started to be a real fan of their work many years after I had first learned of their existence and after hearing their music for a thousand times.
Going back to 2011, the next track released off INNW was “Promises, Promises.” Unlike “Adolescents” which did not quite leave a mark, this did, but sadly not a very good one. This one really quite surprised me. They have had slow songs in their previous albums, but this was more stripped down, calmer, gentler. I felt awkward listening to it. Honestly, I did not quite like it. “I Miss You” and “Love Hurts” suddenly had a new brother.
Apparently, Incubus had not forgotten their fans here in Manila as they had included the city in their World Tour roster! It was April when the (very silent) news of their return was confirmed. Naturally, I felt completely excited about seeing them again. The last time I did see them was in 2008 and I could still clearly see and hear them in my head as if it were just yesterday. Naturally too, radio stations started playing their two singles more frequently. Slowly, “Adolescents” started to sound nice to me. I began to hear the finer details of the song – the crunch of the guitars, the subtle tambourine, the pulsating drums. It was bound to be a classic. Funny how things would turn out in the end as that one song that did not leave an impression would become for me, the highlight of their concert! But enough of reminiscing and nostalgia, and let’s now go to the real highlight of this entry which is the album itself!
As soon as I got home after I had purchased the record, I plopped my shiny, shimmering CD into the player, and I waited for it to play with both excitement and trepidation (!) Boyd’s description and “disclaimer” were both inside my head. And then the opening track “If Not Now, When?” played. A dizzying soft siren-like sound broke the silence, then the steady beat of Jose’s drums (that quickly reminded me of a Band-Aid Christmas song) and tender guitar playing and tambourines entered, afterwhich, the mellow voice of Boyd followed. To be completely honest, I was shocked. I did not realize that it was going to be that slow and soft. It was a ballad! I could only utter the words, “Oh no.” I skipped to check out the other tracks quickly. They all sounded the same. They were all slow and sedated, except that one track toward the end of the album. I wanted to read the lyrics so I swiftly unfolded the album booklet, only to find pictures of the band in different poses. In black and white. No lyrics. What was I supposed to do with their pictures?! That was the last straw! I made it official – INNW was my least liked Incubus album!!!
Ok, so that was just my initial reaction! I have to admit I was just overwhelmed or should I say “underwhelmed” by their new sound. I think any person would have the same reaction if the music they have been listening to for years suddenly… changed. Despite the unknown landscape, I armed myself with objectivity, and decided to see where this new sound would lead me. I uploaded all their tracks to my iPod and gave each song a chance. I looked up all the lyrics, got my jug of water and walking stick and traveled with each
song in the album.
The cover of the album should give you a hint of the music that you would hear inside. On the cover, you have a picture of a tightrope walker. Imagine yourself as him and the sounds you are going to hear. Noise is minimal. The wind would be wrapped around your ears, your body, and probably the flapping of your clothing against it and your own heartbeat would be the loudest sounds you’d hear. When you’re up there, everything is calmer and more peaceful. The sound of the entire album is just that. Calm. Gentle. Subdued. You won’t find anything that resembles the strength of “Megalomaniac” or the energy of “A Certain Shade of Green.” Instead, you have steady and milder beats, slow to mid tempo keyboards and acoustic guitars. The songs have lesser texture. Simple and clean. They feel more “spacious.” Airy. The voice is more relaxed and subtle.
This is obviously a massive departure from their usual style. Even the lyrics are written differently. They are relatively more cryptic and graceful. This is definitely a different animal. A very tamed one!
The album opens with the title track “If Not Now, When?” – a song that is delicate sonically but emotionally heavy. The voice in the song deeply yearns for something that he has been missing in his life. Whatever he is missing is not directly stated. He seems tired and just could not wait to attain it. Some people think that the song is about marriage and it can be one. It has this “wedding song vibe” to it too, especially at 3:57 where the song culminates and you can hear bell-like instrumentation and high-pitched strumming and keys. But it can also be a song simply about achieving freedom or just something that would give him a fresh start. Whatever it is, he’s ready for it. “I’ve waited all my life / If not now, when will I? / Stand up and face the bright light / Don’t hide your eyes / It’s time.”
“Promises, Promises” smoothly follows. It is mainly keys-based and can easily pass as a “lighter song.” (Does anyone still use lighters in concerts??) You can sway along with it. They used an interesting instrument at 00:41 that is repeated in the song, which I cannot identify though. This sound is actually delightful and adds color to the whole track.
If John Mayer thinks that in a relationship, you can just either be “friends, lovers, or nothing,” Incubus begs to differ. In “Friends and Lovers,” the voice actually thinks that friends make the best lovers. The atmosphere is still very muted. Imagine a bright light but cover it up with a blanket – that is how this song feels. The whole song lacks luster. Its use of strings is very subtle.
The tempo picks up a bit in “Thieves.” The blanket that covers “Friends and Lovers” is partially removed in this track. It is a bit brighter and the instrumentation is relatively livelier. This song is the voice of a “citizen” and is most probably talking about either religion, politics/politicians or the inequities present in society.
An acoustic guitar then opens “Isadore” – a song that has a nice rhythm but also has a heartbreaking story behind it. You can bob your head with this song. It is a story of a runaway love and about keeping the memory of that painful relationship breathing. The analogies used here is remarkable and so is Mike’s guitar work.
Mild tones, subtlety, and slower tempo returns in “The Original.” The intro reminds me of the feel of Tori Amos’ album Scarlet’s Walk. It also has this haunting sound somewhere in the chorus that is reminiscent of “Midnight Swim” (from the Look Alive CD and not Melodies and Monuments). From 3:20, the mood slightly begins to change and builds up where the drum races, vocals fly and the electric guitar becomes bolder. The song begins to sound almost like a power rock ballad. Suddenly the image of a glam rock band pops into mind.
Incubus takes you then on acoustic trip in “Defiance.” It has only two ingredients – the nifty guitar work and smooth vocals. This song is the shortest in the album, clocking only at 2.19minutes. For a track that talks about defiance, it is deficient in strength.
Following the very brief “Defiance” is the 7.35 minute track “In the Company of Wolves.” The song has “2 parts” – the first part is
reminiscent of 70s rock, while the the other half has a more RnB, even trip hop flavor to it. The first half tends to be dragging. It begins to have that necessary oomph in the second part which slightly reminds me Jeff Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You” and “New Year’s Eve” combined! The second part is like a shadowy and cold place. The piano parts cut through that coldness and darkness and is comparable to slivers of light that make that section ironically… darker. The drums, string arrangement, samples, and guitars all meld into this beautiful, rich, and mysterious sound.
From a dark and mysterious place, you are suddenly transported to this bright place and you now have “Switchblade” – the only burst of energy in the entire album. This track is a fish out of water as it is the liveliest and relatively most energetic. It is very refreshing and is indeed an enjoyable “break” in the record. It is upbeat but it is not an aggressive rock track. The bass here is noteworthy.
“Adolescents” is the closest thing you have to the “old” Incubus sound. Everything is intense in this track. It then slowly and temporarily weakens towards the end but gains momentum and intensity before it completely finishes. Vocals here are like ribbons that swirl around the track and nicely hold everything in place.
“Tomorrow’s Food,” a Simon and Garfunkel-ish track that touches on existentialism, caps off the album. The strings have at last gotten their appropriate spotlight here. This very soothing string section can be likened to Aqueous Transmission’s sans the pipa and of course the croaking frogs.
After listening to the album for some two straight weeks, this I can conclude: You have to be generous to it – generous in a way that you have to give it much time… to grow on you. To be able to appreciate this album, you have to get rid of what you know about the band’s previous work, free yourself of your biases and just judge it for what it really is and not for how you’ve known their sound all these years. In a way, I guess the only person who can give a real objective view of this new album is someone who has never heard of the old” Incubus sound.
As for me, I tried to be as objective as possible when I started to listen to it and can safely say that as of now, I am somewhere in the middle. There are tracks that I have come to like such as “Isadore,” “Switchblade,” “Thieves,” “Adolescents,” and unbelievably, even “Promises, Promises”! There are those that are caught somewhere in limbo – “INNW” and “Tomorrow’s Food”. Then there are those that would be more appreciated, if not now, probably later.
Without a doubt, Incubus has been relentlessly tweaking and redefining their craft ever since they started. They have grown in every step of the way. One can even simply state that they have “matured” in this album. Although it is my opinion that “slowing down” does not necessarily and automatically equate to maturity, to a degree, it is correct to say as such. I think Incubus’ decision to adopt this new fashion denotes not simply maturity but moreover courage to shake things up, evolve and experiment – exactly the things required of an artist. Their new approach to music also clearly proves that they have in their arsenal the “coldest of weapons” – confidence. They already have a solid fan base and they know that no matter what they do now, at this point in their career, people would still support them, and still flock to their concerts just to see them. Had they decided to do this kind of album in their “twilight years” as a band, then it would be seen only as an eventuality, not experimentation.
As a whole, the album is gloomy, however, it is still something worth having. There are gems waiting to be found inside. And now that they have come up with an album such as this, it just made me curious and anticipate more what they would offer in their next record.