Incubus got popular at kind of a weird time. Between their hip-hop influence (re: having a DJ) and a tendency towards effects-heavy riffing, Incubus didn’t have trouble finding a spot on record shelves that housed Korn or Linkin Park. But at the same time, Incubus’ ability to genre hop made them more than the thinking man’s nu-metal, and they drifted into alt. rock territory as the 00’s pressed on. But with a 5 year break between now and Light Grenades, Incubus’ (and indeed most good rock) place in the mainstream has evaporated.
That in mind, If Not Now, When? is in new territory. The opening title track begins with some guitar noise before morphing into bass and drum heavy mid-tempo tune with soaring vocals and scattered guitars. Or, in other words, U2-lite. The song is well constructed, but gets the album to a sleepy start, and feels fairly repetitive. It could also use a shot in the arm for energy.
But that had to terrify diehard fans less than the pop rock-y “Promises, Promises”. “Promises, Promises” is catchy enough to make a single, but a somewhat uncomfortable listen at the same time; there’s very little guitar on the song, and it feels too safe. Remove Boyd’s voice, and this doesn’t have to be an Incubus track. The guitars make a false appearance at the start of “Thieves” before disappearing into the background of the song, which is (again) dominated by drums and bass. Thankfully, though, bassist Ben Kenney comes up with tasteful basslines, and it’s tempting to sing along with vocalist Brandon Boyd.
Which makes it a damn shame that there aren’t more interesting ideas on If Not Now, When? Between the stomping drums and dynamic changes, “Isadore” should be more compelling than it is, but it fails to connect. I never paid a lot of attention to Incubus before, but even I can tell that “Isadore” would take off if it hit hard, or even hit at all. There’s a guitar solo towards the end of the song, but it’s not enough. Likewise, “The Original” manages to have gusty last minute and a half instrumentally, but is otherwise devoid of interest.
Depending on your take on it, “In The Company of Wolves” is either the best or worst song on the album. Beginning with the same sound as the rest of the album, the song takes a dark turn about halfway in with distorted guitars and a focus on the actual instrumentation, and it’s almost definitely a high point (hint, hint). But at the same time, it’s very easy to tune out before the song’s second half, and then the song goes on too long. “Switchblade” is the album’s “We know we’re changing our sound, but here’s the token throwback” song that doesn’t entirely work because of how out of place it is.
First single and penultimate track (interesting tracklist, boys) “Adolescents” manages to blend Incubus’ usual elements together with the new ones in a satisfying way. It might not be as heavy as older songs, but there’s actual tension and movement to the music, two things that the album’s front half is lacking. The technical and effects-laden guitar solo doesn’t hurt at all, either, nor does Boyd’s stellar chorus.
“Tomorrow’s Food” officially makes If Not Now, When? a back-loaded album, because again, the new elements (strings, balladry) actually work for the band instead of against it. Boyd’s dark mortality lyrics against pretty music like this (guitarist Michael Einzinger’s fingerpicking here is wonderful) only strengthen both, and the extended outro is beautiful.
If Not Now, When? is a transitional record, and like many transitional records, makes for a frustrating listen. As demonstrated by a few stellar songs and promising moments throughout, Incubus hasn’t chosen a bad direction to go, but for their new sound to truly work, there needs to be more energy brought to the table. The album has spots of promise, but doesn’t capitalize on them until the end. Some fans will embrace the change, some will reject it, but neither side is entirely right or wrong: Three stars out of five.
tl;dr: Incubus don’t always sound like themselves on their New Sound album, 3/5.