In a recent, glaring review of Incubus’ latest LP – IF NOT NOW, WHEN? – a writer posed the eternal question: who, if anyone, is this album aimed at? It’s a fair question, and one that might be attributed to any number of records – in fact, it could probably be related to just about any disc that you could name. Who is the demographic? Is there even a demographic? Did the artist(s) even create with demographics in mind, or is the recording simply a masturbatory act where anybody who wants in on the musical orgy is welcome?
IF NOT NOW, WHEN? is something else entirely. This isn’t a generalized, vague and near-existential question about what it means to create art for one’s self versus one’s audience. Rather, it’s a peculiar and compelling example of what happens when a band completely abandons one form of musical expression for another, regardless of the implications. That isn’t to say that this batch of tracks isn’t entirely unrecognizable as Incubus – many tracks, such as lead single “Adolescents” and the curious “Isadore” call to mind previous songs from the group’s catalogue, even if they are ones that were intentionally left off of records because of their atypical compositions and sonic palettes. What makes this album different from previous offerings is its tone: everything from energy to lyrical wordplay and even arrangement is wildly different, not only from the band’s eclectic beginnings, but also from their more commercial, recent work.
Admittedly, there are reasons for these changes. Lead guitarist Mike Einziger used the band’s extended hiatus to go back to school and study music, and the difference in his performances are markedly different from his previous efforts. This isn’t a positive or negative change, either; it is simply different. Many fans may find themselves longing for the admittedly over-thought and eclectic riffage of tracks like “Stellar” when they hear the peaceful, straightforward and downright acoustic strumming that pervades the entire 50-minute runtime. He does some very solid texture-work here, though, and the album is littered with his idiosyncratic ornamentation.
But even more so than the shift in the guitar-work, it is Brandon Boyd’s positively insane lyrics that have undergone the most dramatic change between 2005’s LIGHT GRENADES and this latest effort. Whereas, once upon a time, Boyd was known to make abstract references to drunken mimes and interstellar meanderings, his current noodling follows a more direct and personal through-line. One need only reference the opening, title-track: “I’ve waited all my life / If not now, when will I?” to see the difference. While some fans might find this distilling of his unquestionably talented knack for poetic pirouettes disheartening, others will find it refreshing – you might actually understand what in the world Boyd is talking about now, and may even find some serious emotional resonance where there was only awe and wonder before.
One of the most notable departures from the group’s previous sound is the general lack of energy. Make no mistakes – this is a peaceful, calm record. Even in the few places where the album picks up steam – the aforementioned “Adolescents” as well as the funk-tastic “Switchblade” – there is still a general air of grandeur and calm. Gone are the days of songs like the title-track of 1999’s MAKE YOURSELF or “Nice to Know You” off of 2002’s MORNING VIEW. In their place are tracks more along the lines of fan-favorites “Aqueous Transmission” and “Mexico”, which is a strange comparison to make considering how drastically different the feel of this album is – while the aforementioned tracks were moments of serenity among the bombastic, sonic smorgasbord of previous albums, they are simply the poster-children for a new, distilled sound here.
None of this is to say that the album is bad – far from it. It’s an excellent album that showcases the band’s versatility, even if you miss the energy of previous offerings or prefer a more outrageous performance from rhythm section Ben Kenney and José Pasillas than the subdued one they give here. It balances the band’s eclectic side – which was certainly becoming overripe by the time MORNING VIEW hit – and the commercial appeal of more recent records into something entirely new. What is interesting about the album is that despite its avoidance of anything resembling the musical absurdity of earlier albums, it achieves nothing within the realm of “mainstream”. While many unhappy fans may descry the album as “pop”, it is nothing of the sort: with a few notable exceptions – such as follow-up single and album standout, “Promises, Promises” – IF NOT NOW, WHEN? is noticeably devoid of the massive hooks that make an Incubus record what it is. This is a restrained and subdued batch of songs that is sure to be endlessly divisive among fans, calling back to mind the question of who, if anybody, this record is for: if the answer does not lie somewhere in the realm of the open-minded listener, it is must fall squarely on the shoulders of a maturing group of talented musicians that grew weary of screaming when a whisper would suffice.