With two decades of hindsight, it’s kind of funny to notice how at war with themselves music critics seemed regarding Incubus, especially by the time the unapologetically SoCal troupe released their fourth studio album, Morning View. As has been unendingly discussed, especially now with all of these other era-adjacent anniversaries, rock music was a tricky subject in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The Strokes were only juuuust getting around to putting their nonchalant, retrofied spin on the genre, and for the six-ish years prior, a successful radio rock band was probably going to be lumped in with Korn, Disturbed, Limp Bizkit, Drowning Pool, and the rest of the Ozzfest lineup. Incubus were not quite as easy to categorize, though goodness knows promoters tried, frequently dumping them in the nu-metal bucket on the festival circuit. Sure, Incubus’ earliest work went Deftones-hard, but then you also had acoustic, mid-tempo ballads like “Drive” and a gentle, oft-shirtless lead singer, and, welp, now the pop kids who loved *NSYNC and Britney could rock out a little too. I should know — I was one of them.
But back to those critics for a moment: There was a tendency to want to dismiss Incubus as being the equivalent of a blacklight poster in your brother’s dorm room, a Doors cover band fronted by a poor man’s Jim Morrison, the musical version of a one-hitter pipe. But Incubus kept having the last laugh. 1999’s Make Yourself, home to the aforementioned “Drive” plus “Stellar” and “Pardon Me,” went double platinum in the US, setting the stage for an equally successful follow-up. After Make Yourself, mainstream outlets like MTV were watching and listening, poised to pounce on the next hit. A less-experienced band (Incubus actually formed 10 years before Morning View came out) might have caved to the pressure and simply spat out another Make Yourself. But Brandon Boyd, guitarist Mike Einziger, bassist Dirk Lance, drummer Jose Pasillas, and turntable artist Chris Kilmore, pivoted ever so slightly. Renting a house in Malibu near where they grew up in Calabasas, the band hunkered down and spent the next six months pushing the limits of their sound.
Like its predecessors, Morning View has sharp edges. Opener and single “Nice To Know You” clicks right into gear with a charging chorus perfectly suited to Boyd’s howl. (Sidebar: I caught Incubus’ Make Yourself anniversary tour in 2019, and I’m pleased to assure you, Boyd can still wail.) “Under My Umbrella” and “Blood On The Ground” go as hard as anything on their 1997 major-label debut S.C.I.E.N.C.E. But there is an intentional push-pull effect on Morning View. For every heavy-handed cut and chorus, there is a mellowed-out exhale; neither sonic pole overpowers the other. It makes sense that this album was recorded in Malibu of all places; if Incubus sounded any more blissed, they’d already be on a commune. This is their Don-Draper-Coke-commercial moment.
No wonder the critics were torn — you want to sneer at Poetry 101 lines like “deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go” and “the ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket,” but Boyd is just so sincere and somehow also self-aware. He’s much smarter than the average shirtless beach bro, and he’s interested in everything. But somehow isn’t condescending? That is a tricky needle to thread.
By taking themselves out of the bland recording studio space for Morning View, Incubus probably felt comfortable pushing themselves to explore new sounds, instruments, and rhythms. I’m especially fond of the gorgeous album closer “Aqueous Transmission,” which utilizes Chinese instruments such as the pipa and is accompanied by a Japanese orchestra. Strings swell as Boyd murmurs, “Floating down a river-ah-ahhhh.” At nearly eight minutes, “Aqueous Transmission” stops just short of actual nirvana, ending with the sound of frogs croaking outside their Malibu studio.
Despite its tranquilizer dart of a closer, Morning View is not all crystals and incense. Lead single “Wish You Were Here,” still a total bop, imagines a universal happy place — the beach, a cool breeze — and yearns to share it with a loved one. Tied together with (admittedly dated) record scratches, “Wish You Were Here” is one of my favorite examples of crisp, layered production. Just listen to the way guitarist Mike Einziger’s vocals harmonize against Boyd’s; dig that one guitar strum being pulled into focus for the chorus, which is otherwise more or less a wall of distortion.
Follow-up “Just A Phase” likewise is such a pleasure to hear evolve, even 20 years later. Opening with ambient feedback, “Just A Phase” takes nearly two full minutes to lock in, slowly but rhythmically building with guitar picking and orchestral cello. The song shifts gears halfway in, going from mostly chill to all-out paranoia (“Who are you, and when will you be through?” Boyd sings with trepidation) and back again. By the end, “Just A Phase” has shot to a climax of vocal howls against metal guitar licks, but, in a delightfully full-circle moment, it leans right back to the start, with that same ambient feedback. (Best to overlook the awkward line “You are a fingernail running down/ The chalkboard I thought I left in third grade.”)
Despite its sporadic fortune-cookie platitudes (“Don’t ever let life pass you by,” “I suggest we learn to love ourselves before it’s made illegal”), two decades later Morning View is a precious reminder that there were a few bright spots in the Y2K rock-radio canon. For all of the overly aggro testosterone-bomb acts who would encourage young, cis-het white guys to guzzle cheap beer and lean into rape culture (because it’s just a joke, haha, can’t you take a joke?), you had a band like Incubus. They could headbang, write a sticky melody, genre-blend with precision, lyrically emote, and imbue each song with a little cereal-box philosophy. Starting with 2004’s A Crow Left Of The Murder, the quality and popularity would wane, but Morning View was Incubus at their peak. The album remains an improbable blend of commercial appeal and crate-digging experimentalism, as well as a nice reminder to go touch some grass.