Here’s a pop music truism we’ve all, at some point, fallen prey to: When the band we love ceases to sound like what we’ve perceived as “themselves”, music fans tend to bail, to dismiss out of hand an artist’s efforts. It’s a basic, human reaction: among other things, we’re threatened by change, and emotionally react to shifts in the fundamentals of what we hold dear. Don’t worry, music fan: it’s a perfectly natural reaction.
The tenacity of the hardcore fan is not to be undermined. Does anybody remember how revolted fans were by Metallica’s decision to embrace a friendlier, relatively thrashless version of hard rock? Mullets everywhere wilted in sorrow; sleeves on black t-shirts were glumly sewn back into their proper place. What about the Green Day fans lamenting the band’s brisk, no-frills pop-punk days after the band started writing political screeds and Who-like multi-song suites? Kings of Leon followers when the band’s weed-addled brand of southern rock started sounding more and more like a southwestern U2? Nickelback fans when Nickelback stopped making awful independent-label records and started making awful major-label ones? Often these claims ring hollow, and just smack of fans grasping desperately for the meager cool points granted by the phrase “well, I liked them back when…”; every now and again, though, a band becomes such a shell of its former self that one can’t help but to lament the loss.
Incubus falls firmly into the former camp. Bred as an alt-rock band known for wicked curveballs – jagged, angular riffing, a frontman with a clear, dynamic voice, and a DJ in the outfit adding left-field flourish and texture – Incubus was the recipient of a lot of attention for their breakthrough record (1999’s Make Yourself, admittedly a career high for any band) and a series of earnest singles that managed large choruses and big-scale accessibility without really sounding like any of their contemporaries. They gained scores of fans – even managed to keep them through their softer-edged but ambitious and accomplished follow-up, Morning Glory – and eventually started hemorrhaging followers through a series of increasingly-mediocre records. Which brings us to If Not Now, When?, the band’s seventh record, and, for the most part, it’s a departure. Perusing reviews finds many Incubus fans rioting in the streets – the consensus seems to be that lead singer Brandon Boyd has pretty much abandoned the dynamics of a very talented band in service of his vocal chops, leading to something that sounds suspiciously like a solo record.
And there’s an element of truth to that. If Not Now kicks off with the title track, and, like many other bands operating under the “alternative rock” umbrella, it’s U2 through and through. This is Joshua Tree material, big-hearted emotions vocalized over heavy toms and shimmering guitars – there’s a strong “Where the Streets Have No Name” undercurrent here – and, honestly, it sounds terrific. Boyd’s crisp tenor is front and center here, soaring to the heavens on an ascending vocal melody; the track provides several moments of terrific release, mostly centered on the aesthetic pleasures of pairing a belted high note with an orchestral flourish, but terrific nonetheless. “Promises, Promises” is the most pop-baiting track here, a slice of disarmingly catchy piano-rock; the twist is that Boyd’s vocals lend some theatrical pomp to the dramatic melody, lending the tune a Broadway sheen that wouldn’t sound out of place in something like “Rent”. Whether or not that’s a selling point is up you, but for the listener that doesn’t expect Incubus in 2011 to sound like Incubus in 1999, it’s an unqualified keeper.
And therein lies the success, or lack thereof, of If Not Now, When? Incubus has taken a dramatic left turn into adult contemporary pop. It’s a terrific-sounding record, coated in a crisp sheen that emphasizes Boyd’s strong vocals, and little else, strung over workaday soundscapes. It just doesn’t sound much like the band that once thrilled you as a teenager. If you can get past that, you’ll find “Friends and Lovers” remarkably pretty; you’ll recognize the debt that the lovely acoustic number “Defiance” owes to Alice in Chains, but enjoy it despite that; and you’ll notice that Incubus’ attempts at recapturing old lyrical and musical tropes tends to sound stale. (“Thieves”, for example, tries to recapture the pointed invective of “Megalomaniac”, but with stilted lines like “everything is fine when you’re a God-fearing white American”, even the truth sounds clunky.) Clearly, Incubus is evolving, and if your angst doesn’t evolve with it, you’re bound to miss on a perfectly solid, often gorgeous record.
And then, there are some bands that strike out even when they’re sticking to the format, and their fans are right to call them on it. It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from Sublime, although their rep as white reggae’s most prominent champions remains intact as long as college freshmen remain fond of dreadlocks and canibus. Frontman Bradley Nowell has been gone for well over a decade now, and in an effort to reclaim the band’s former glory, Sublime survivors Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh have gone the Journey route and recruited a Youtube cover artist to front their misguided assumption that people don’t necessarily associate Sublime with Nowell. Turns out that, even as new frontman Rome Ramirez does his best to write a set of Sublime-aping tunes, Sublime have simply evolved sideways.
Given the trio’s oft-lauded penchant for genre-hopping, it’s disheartening to hear a version of Sublime that shirks this aspect of their legacy in favor of warmed-over reggae. Here’s the cold, hard truth about shiny new album Yours Truly: there’s nothing here that’s even a tiny bit more exciting than your average Jason Mraz record. Vocalist/guitarist Rome has a perfectly acceptable voice, but that’s the problem – it’s indistinguishable. This is Train for the reefer and board shorts set, talented people phoning it in and nothing more. Opening track “Panic” is a serviceable ska workout, sure, and the dub overtones of “Can You Feel It” are reasonably appealing despite the tragic decision to slap a sleepy Wiz Khalifa verse on it – but, for the most part, this is one man’s concept of what Sublime sounds like, and the result is so overwhelmingly mediocre and stilted that it’s a bit hard to accept that this is the band that gave us the roaring, wickedly funny “Santeria” so many years ago. Rome’s songwriting is a checklist of words and concepts that he hopes will strike a chord with trustafarians – free-love mantras, vague ramblings about what “they” want you to think, and weed references. It’s all disarmingly rote and sleepy; even the rhythm section sounds like it’s slumming it, sleepwalking through a series of rhythms that, when you’re not paying attention, usually sound disarmingly like a series of different takes on the “Billionaire” instrumental. Yours Truly is entirely paint-by-numbers, the Mad Libs of the alt-rock landscape, music serviceable for when you’re not paying the slightest bit of attention to it and not much more.
So, should we abandon our favorite bands when they cease to sound like the bands we fell in love with? Not necessarily – Incubus is an evolving band that can afford to do a sonic 180 and still sound pretty good doing it. Sublime settling into the same old patterns, sounding like pastiche artists without a lick of substance or a single interesting musical choice? That’s what we should be avoiding.
Grade, If Not Now, When?: B
Grade, Yours Truly: D+