It would be easy to begin listening to Incubus’ eighth studio album, aptly assigned the blank title of 8, expecting a return to form—a stripping away of all the introspective fanciness that divided fans in 2011’s If Not Now, When?, and a rejection of their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to 2015’s Trust Fall (Side A). In some ways, 8 accomplishes that return. It’s been a while since the band sounded like five guys playing rough in a basement bar, and longtime fans will no doubt enjoy hearing shades of Incubus from the ‘90s here.
The problem is this: Incubus has proven over the years that they’ve never been just five guys playing loud music. While they bring their usual energy, skill, and experimentation in songwriting to this latest effort, 8 is curiously lacking in the soul and poetry that made them cult favorites.
It’s not a bad record; Incubus is far too talented to make anything that isn’t at least catchy or interesting. Vocalist Brandon Boyd makes full use of his ridiculous range while adding a bit more edge and breathlessness to tracks like “No Fun” and “Throw Out the Map.” Guitarist Michael Einziger anchors everything with heavy, chunky riffs instead of more delicate arrangements. And while the title doesn’t leave too much to the imagination, 8 still has the capacity to surprise (the sudden curveballs in Boyd’s delivery during “Glitterbomb”) and to thrill (the confident swagger of “Love in a Time of Surveillance,” the best song on the album). For some fans, that might be all they need, and that’s understandable. Incubus has more than earned their reputation as skilled and entertaining musicians.
But what makes 8 far less remarkable than the rest of Incubus’ discography is its failed attempts to stitch its eleven tracks into a cohesive whole. To be fair, Incubus has never been very consistent—their penchant for just playing around occasionally overshadowing any major themes or motifs they try to address. But here, the inconsistencies are far more noticeable. While it’s good that songs like the moody “Loneliest” and the anthemic “State of the Art” feel different, they’re different to the point that they feel like interruptions to the album as a whole.
It’s more than the fact that 8 is a bit disjointed; it’s that the album doesn’t know where to place it puzzle pieces. “Undefeated” is probably the biggest culprit. It’s a triumphant declaration that comes far too early in the track list for its message to have any staying power. And even when 8 hits its stride during the last four tracks, one can’t help but feel they’ve jumbled up the order. There’s a great movement of energy at the end that would’ve been better if “Make No Sound in the Digital Forest,” an oddly timed instrumental track, didn’t halt the momentum.
But perhaps the most puzzling thing about 8 is how it plays it safe, lyrically speaking. Incubus’ lyrics have always been full of fascinating detail and articulate proverbs, but 8 is content with repeating words instead of digging deeper. The album appears to be about yearning to break free from familiarity, which concludes in a genuinely impressive way with “Throw Out the Map.” However, themes of modern technology are suddenly introduced in “Loneliest.” These themes hang around for a couple more songs, and then depart without leaving any impact.
8 is an odd collection of songs that will please hardcore Incubus fans but might just leave other listeners even more confused the more they listen to it. Again, it’s not without its bright spots, and the members of Incubus themselves remain worthy role models for musicians and songwriters looking to evolve their music. But after the wide sonic frontiers that Incubus showed us with their last two releases, it’s more than a little disappointing that the band decided instead to keep themselves rooted to familiarity.
Art by Mags Ocampo