November 12, 2007

...to Incubus (It's done, Part II)

I've been considering lately what it is about Incubus that I've responded to so strongly since this past June. As mentioned before, I've known of the band for several years and never gave them a serious listen. I've written already (July 7, 2007 blog) about what made a couple of particular tunes jump out and grab my attention a few months ago, but as I started buying and listening to the rest of their catalog, I began to think about which elements of their music turned my initial reaction into a full-blown addiction. As with every other band with which I've been obsessed over the years, it comes down to the same two things: Words and a voice.

I don't know much about music theory and composition, but I do know enough to realize that all of the guys in this band are incredibly talented and creative. And the overall sound of the band is definitely the first thing that would get anyone's attention. As with T00l, there are musical interludes by Incubus that are very interesting &/or beautiful to listen to, and the live jams they go into in the middle of certain songs on stage are fascinating to both watch and hear. For me, though, Brandon Boyd is the undeniable focal point of Incubus.

So what is it about this guy? Might as well mention one thing right up front and get it out of the way: He's very pretty. Incubus often seems to be looked down upon due to this fact, as well as for the hordes of teenage girls who are apparently into the band for this reason alone. And I certainly can't deny that Brandon's got just about every physical quality that I find attractive and that I've created a folder on my computer of particularly appealing photos of him… But that's definitely not all there is to him.

First, there's the voice. If all you listen to are the singles that have taken over the airwaves and launched Incubus into top-of-the-charts status, it could be possible to label Brandon as some light-weight tenor who can wail but nothing more. But if you pick just one song and really listen, the quality of Boyd's voice quickly becomes obvious. First apparent is the clearness of his tone and enunciation. And there's an appealing youthfulness to the timbre of his voice, even on more recent songs released since he hit his 30's. Listening to a wider range of Incubus tunes, though, also reveals an impressive versatility. Early songs like Redefine and Vitamin, from 1997's S.C.I.E.N.C.E., are full of fast-paced rap and rougher, heavy metal-ish screaming. The same album, though, includes a complete 180 degree turnaround on Summer Romance, in which Boyd croons the verses in a smooth, warm, sensuous tone. And probably the best example of his control and power is in the song Nebula. The changes in tempo and style in this song demand incredibly precise diction and breath control. I've watched videos of live performances of this song on YouTube and Boyd doesn't stutter, skip a beat, or lose his breath at any point. That alone makes him a fairly amazing vocalist.

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. seems to be one of Incubus' most experimental albums in many ways, including vocally. Incubus and Boyd seemed to find a more defining sound beginning with Make Yourself, released in 1999. They continued to explore the boundaries of musical genres they associate with, though, while Boyd seemed to shift his focus to exploring the emotive range of his voice (which is a similar progression to that made by Chris Cornell in Soundgarden). On both Make Yourself and Morning View (2001), songs like Pardon Me, The Warmth, Just a Phase, 11:00am, and Aqueous Transmission showed that he has the ability to stir a variety of emotions through his singing. On A Crow Left of the Murder (2004), the song Zee Deveel indicated a return to some playful experimentation with different vocal sounds, while the rest of that album and the more recent Light Grenades (2006) confirm that Brandon's voice has become an instrument fully in complement to those played so well by the rest of the band members. The guy can hold his own against the best vocalists out there, including Chris Cornell in his prime, and deserves much more recognition than he gets for his talent.

But, like a pretty face, a fantastic voice alone isn't enough. Boyd apparently writes all of the lyrics for Incubus' songs and his words are what solidified my love of this band. As a bibliophile and writer-wanna-be, words are very important to me. As I mentioned in the July 7th blog linked above, it was the imagery and emotions evoked in Wish You Were Here that first struck me. The opening verse alone shows what an evocative poet Boyd is:

I dig my toes into the sand
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket
I lean against the wind
Pretend that I am weightless
And in this moment I am happy...happy


Very simple, yet the emotional state conveyed is intensely beautiful. But Brandon's word choice can also at times be quite, umm… idiosyncratic. The latest album, Light Grenades, is especially full of phrases such as "…if it's right to pick a fight, we're fingers in a sugar bowl" (Diamonds & Coal) and "You're 'bout as reliable as paper shoes in bad weather" (Paper Shoes) that on first listen come across as cliche'd sounding. Repeated listening, though, found me debating whether these lines really are trite or just very strangely clever. The song Here in My Room (from ACLOTM) is another example of the quirky contrasts in some of Boyd's lyrics. The guy writes ravishingly wistful love songs, yet this one jarred me the first few times I listened to it:

(Chorus)
If the world would fall apart
In a fiction worthy wind
I wouldn't change a thing now that you're here
Love is a verb here in my room

(Verse)
Pink tractor beam into your incision
Head spinning as free as dervishes whirl
I came here expecting nothing
So thank you for being that kind of girl


Okay, so that one's not so much a love song as it is a lust song, but it gets the point across. "Pink tractor beam"?? Every time I hear this song, I just shake my head at how cornball that line is, especially in contrast to the gorgeous imagery of whirling dervishes in the line immediately after it.

I can't speak for critics or fellow fans, but I personally have come to the conclusion that Boyd's quirky lyrics are the result of what seem to be some interesting personal eccentricities. Considering those eccentricities along with how he expresses himself musically and in interviews, though, leaves a strong impression of someone totally at ease with himself. In speaking about one of my other favorite song-writers, Chris Cornell (same July 7th blog from above), I mentioned that what I always identified most with in Cornell's lyrics was the tortured quality he seemed to convey. While I accept certain aspects of my own character, I still battle with them on a continual basis, and I sense the same sort of struggle in the words of my favorite old Soundgarden songs. Maynard James Keenan is another lyricist I've discussed, who has also brought his internal struggles for growth to light in his songs. T00l's music has progressed over the years from bitter and angry to more contemplative and spiritual, and I've related strongly to that progression as I've followed my own difficult path. Still, though, some of my favorite T00l tunes are their darkest and most ugly. In contrast, there's nothing at all tortured about Brandon Boyd's lyrics. There's often intense frustration, even anger, and he sings more than once about the scars he bears, but underneath any negative expressions in his lyrics seem to lie a strong sense of self and a belief that things can be changed for the better. What resonates most strongly for me are Brandon's seemingly optimistic spirituality and his ability to find joy in the world in spite of the things that leave him confused or dismayed. I've come to a point in my life where I've realized that's how I want to live, and listening to Boyd's words has become an inspiration for me.

It could be easy to dismiss many of Brandon's lyrics as being so simple as to approach naiveté, but in a way that's the very beauty of them. Coming from years of listening to Soundgarden and T00l, I find the ingenuousness of his imagery and metaphors to be refreshing and very engaging. It's like the simplicity of Zen compared to the deep mysteries and ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. To have such words conveyed by that voice of his is a potent combination. I have a feeling it's going to be a blast to follow Boyd's continuing maturation as an artist.

Pantomime

In my fantasy
I'm a pantomime
I'll just move my hands and everyone sees what I mean
Words are too messy
And it's way past time
To hand in my mouth
Paint my face white, and try to reinvent the sea
One wave at a time
Speak without my voice
And see the world by candle light

I ain't afraid to let it out
I'm not afraid to take that fall
But I've found beyond all doubt
You say more by saying nothing at all

In my fantasy
No such thing as time
Minutes bleed into days of avant garde art, show
Me your heresy and I'll show you mine
We only speak in pantomimes on this carpet ride

I ain't afraid to let it out
I'm not afraid to take that fall
But I've found beyond all doubt
We say more by saying nothing at all

In my fantasy
You look good entwined
In my hair and skin and spit and sweat and spilled red wine
You're my deep secret
I'm your pantomime
I'll just move my hands
I promise you'll see what I mean

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