You may or may not have noticed, but Incubus haven’t released a studio album of new material in five years. The band took a hiatus after finishing touring for 2006’s Light Grenades to pursue other interests. Some members did some growing up (drummer Jose Pensillas had a child), others went back to school (singer Brandon Boyd to study art, guitarist Mike Einziger to study composition) and some went to court (DJ Chris Kilmore renewed his restraining order against Incubus’ former turntablist Gavin Koppell). All of these things then, should have gone into making Incubus’ seventh album, If Not Now, When?, their most inspired yet. But, it seems as though the band has completely forgotten to keep up with music in the years they’ve been off, instead producing some of the most banal songs by any rock band in recent memory.
One of the biggest draws of Incubus’ past material, particularly to younger fans, has been the messages in their songs. They’ve often been cheesy, but Boyd has a way with words that makes the things he sings sound empowering and relatable. Not so anymore. “Baby could I be the rabbit in your hat? / I’d swing if you’d hand me, hand me the bat,” he sings on “Promises, Promises,” using clichés almost nonsensically, and rhyming like a preschooler. On “Friends and Lovers” he delivers a lecture about the advantages of being in a sexual relationship and a friendship with someone simultaneously. What a novel idea! I wonder if Hollywood has had that brainwave yet? And, despite preaching about his respect for women on that track, he later completely objectifies them, describing a girl he lusting after on “Switchblade,” showing a particular shine for her “all-American thighs.”
Regardless of what he’s singing about, it’s undeniable that Brandon Boyd has an incredible voice. However, on previous releases the rest of Incubus would rise to match and cushion his theatrical vocals, but here they sound lifeless, like a karaoke backing track, and we’re left wondering when they might show up. Sadly, Jose Pensillas’ drums never really do; the imaginative and original parts he used to play are nowhere to be seen. Ben Kenny’s bass gets turned up on a few occasions, but there are no noteworthy musical moments to speak of. DJ Kilmore is nowhere to be heard; perhaps he’s the one pressing the queasy keys in the album’s opening trio of piano-led dirges. Einziger’s guitar sticks its head in to add some lofty atmospherics to the chorus of “Thieves,” while Boyd delivers a quasi-insightful metaphor about some crooks selling him water by the river, and again in a generic guitar solo at the conclusion of “Isadore,” which is also mostly quashed by Boyd’s vocal ejaculations. Finally we get to hear its roar at the end of the sixth track “The Original” – half way through what is supposedly a rock album.
Considering Incubus’s musical mastermind Mike Einziger has now studied composition at Harvard you’d hope that they’d augment their music with some strings, as they were unafraid to do on Light Grenades. They finally do on the impressive second half of “In the Company of Wolves” (aside from pointlessly in the opening seconds of the album) and it’s easily the highlight of the album. The only other moment where it comes together musically is the lead single “Adolescents,” where for once Boyd and his band attack in unison and provide a sweepingly grand-yet-rocking chorus the likes of which they’d turn in by the dozen on previous albums. Both of these are almost at the conclusion of the album, far beyond the point where all patience and interest in If Not Now, When? has been lost.
If Not Now, When? is an extreme disappointment. Every Incubus album up until now has had plenty of songs worthy of revisiting countless times. Although Light Grenades was a step down from the quality of their previous four albums, five years off should have rejuvenated the band, but instead their creativity seems to have diminished further. Turning back now seems unlikely from the signs here; the passion that used to drive their music was once furious, but is now soppy and infinitely uninteresting.