It has taken me quite a while to commit to putting my thoughts about Incubus‘ latest full-length release in some kind of written form. This strikes me as odd, since the band’s eighth LP — simplistically titled 8 — is easily its most straightforward, focused and digestible release. However, I think I can at last verbalize what is going on here: More and more, Incubus’ career trajectory is following the path of Pearl Jam‘s, and 8 is the equivalent of Pearl Jam’s fifth album Yield (1998). Allow me to carefully compare the two band’s histories. Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten (1991) was their breakthrough (though members had participated in precursor bands integral to the formation of grunge, namely Temple of the Dog, Mother Love Bone and Green River), after which they altered their sound by working with producer Brendan O’Brien on Vs. (1993) and Vitalogy (1994).
In Incubus’ case, they broke through with their 1999 album Make Yourself and 2001 album Morning View, then switched up their attack by hiring O’Brien to produce 2004‘s A Crow Left of the Murder… and 2006’s Light Grenades. After the disastrous Vitalogy Tour and ill-advised Ticketmaster boycott, Pearl Jam regrouped with O’Brien to record 1996‘s No Code, which was more experimental and moved the band away from the grunge sound they helped form. It wasn’t as well received by critics or fans, and 1998’s Yield has always come across as something of a back-to-basics reaction to that reception. Not that it’s really a grunge album, but it’s more immediate and accessible than its predecessor. However, the songs on it just aren’t that good aside from a few highlights like “Given to Fly,” “Faithful” and “No Way.”
Incubus have stumbled into a pretty similar situation, and they have more or less (consciously?) attempted the same fix. After touring behind Light Grenades, Incubus went on a pretty extended hiatus, though they put out a stopgap release in the form of a greatest hits and rarities compilation in 2009 called Monuments and Melodies. By the time If Not Now, When? was released in 2011, it been almost five years since a proper album had seen the light of day. As with No Code, If Not Now, When? showcased a different musical approach and really wasn’t received well. After completely dismantling everything around them — the band hired new management and signed with a new label, Island Records, now that its contract with Epic Records was complete — Incubus released a self-produced four-song EP in 2015 called Trust Fall (Side A).
The EP contained two of the most promising tracks — “Absolution Calling” and “Trust Fall” — the band had released in years, and it gave fans hope that perhaps Incubus’ best days still lay ahead of them. Alas, 8, released in the spring of 2017, is not the group’s best work. It shows flashes of brilliance, but like Pearl Jam’s aforementioned album Yield, is overly corrective to the point of feeling pretty suffocatingly constrained. The material here, as in the case of Yield, is pretty weak — too many songs are just plain underwritten. The opener, “No Fun,” is certainly loud and has plenty of energy — something many criticized If Not Now, When? of not having enough of — but is compositionally and lyrically unimaginative, to say the least. The lead single “Nimble Bastard” isn’t much more complex and covers similar sonic territory, with a curiously grimy mix and a galloping rhythm similar to TV on the Radio‘s “Wolf Like Me.”
I suppose this is where I have to at least acknowledge the limits of my 8 = Yield thesis: Brendan O’Brien produced Yield, but Incubus elected to move on from O’Brien and work with producer Dave Sardy instead for 8. Strangely, Sardy’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the album credits — and he has a long history of appearing as a credited producer (240 times as of this writing) and engineer. This is just conjecture on my part, but what appears to have happened is Sardy requested his name be removed from the album credits after the band elected to give the stems to Skrillex and have him rework several tracks. As it stands, the album credits list no one as an official producer — Skrillex comes closest with a co-producer credit. (As someone who looks at album credits and inputs them into this website quite often I can tell you this is not a normal occurrence.)
Anyway, the band has yet to comment on this particular oddity (and let’s face it, almost no one notices that kind of thing). Regardless, Sardy’s impact on the recordings produced from his sessions with the band is immediately noticeable. Whereas O’Brien tilted If Not Now, When? toward a much warmer and more finely textured sound, Sardy’s background in hard rock and metal gives these recordings a more raw and bloodless edge. This is particularly evident when vocalist Brandon Boyd’s voice comes close to breaking in several places (such as on the chorus of “Undefeated”) due to the wear and tear of Sardy’s producing methods, which Boyd has related in interviews were pretty punishing. The drums (and bass) sound pretty dryly recorded to me, as well — even when wetter ambiance and reverb sneak in via other instruments (such as on the excellent instrumental track “Make No Sound in the Digital Forest”).
This is also precisely why having Skrillex remix 8 late in the process was such a left-field decision. Does he turn 8 into an EDM record? Not at all. Even the most electronic song on the album — the record’s lone true stunner, “Loneliest” — is, to me at least, much more electronica (à la Make Yourself‘s “The Warmth,” which is one of the band’s best) than EDM; the songs still fundamentally adhere to rock structures. What Skrillex does is give the record a final polish that’s certainly interesting on a surface level but fails to hide that not much of this material is truly exceptional in the first place. (It’s also somewhat at odds with Sardy’s edgier recording methods.) When listening to the finished product, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that these tracks are simultaneously overheated and undercooked, leaving the meat on the bones unevenly grilled. If I had to hazard a guess, I think too much external pressure got in the way.
After all, Incubus planned to release Trust Fall (Side B) shortly after releasing Trust Fall (Side A). Instead, they shelved it in favor of just making an LP. (Side B continues to surface in interviews now and then, so it appears it hasn’t been permanently put aside.) Then after recording 8, they diddled and fiddled when it came to how it should eventually sound. To be sure, sonically speaking 8 is certainly an album that wants to be liked and, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t require you to accept it on its own terms. At the time of If Not Now, When?‘s release, band members explained that they thought they were asking a lot of their fans with the record since it marked progress into territory they hadn’t explored before. It seems there was a lot more second guessing this time around — the kind that comes when you have to calculate how much of a return to familiar territory is too much.
In the end, 8 is a disappointment — nothing here represents a step forward, aside from some surface flourishes. While no song here is actually bad — save the joke track “When I Became a Man,” which is bad on purpose — at least half of the album lacks imagination and is less than mediocre by Incubus standards, even if it’s still breezily enjoyable and professionally executed. The best tracks — the positively hypnotizing “Loneliest,” the effortlessly gliding “Familiar Faces,” the shimmering “State of the Art,” the cheeky “Love in a Time of Surveillance,” and the mind-melting “Make No Noise in the Digital Forest” — don’t exactly qualify as the band’s best work, but they’re still welcome additions to Incubus’ still-growing catalog. (“Nimble Bastard is pretty fun too, I might add.) And as a fan, that’s really what’s worth savoring: that the band is still together, still making new music, and still letting us hear it.
They might be in the relative wilderness as far as pop culture is concerned, but Pearl Jam was too at this stage of their career and managed to top the charts again with Backspacer in 2009 and again with Lightning Bolt in 2013. If 8 demonstrates anything it’s that there’s clearly still a lot of life left in this band. And with upcoming anniversary tours scheduled beginning with Make Yourself turning twenty in 2019, Incubus may yet shore up members of the fanbase that have wandered away from them over the years during this less productive decade or so out of the limelight. Years from now we may not look back at the music of 8 as worthy of a creative rebirth, but once we can put some more of the band’s future history into perspective we no doubt will be able to more fully understand how 8 fits into Incubus’ larger continuing evolution.