Cold Winds: Incubus' Morning View And The Knotty Aftermath Of September 11
Once the towers had fallen, simultaneously facing both the body count and the scarred city skyline was enough to realign anybody's perspectives. I was supposedly on track as a college sophomore in Virginia, but it was tough for me to justify continuing on as a student; every day for months, I thought about dropping out to enlist, feeling like a draft dodger even though there was no draft. We waited for twelve hours in a line that stretched around the basketball arena to donate at the Red Cross blood drive, and when our turns finally came, it felt like we couldn't give enough. As a teenager, I was of course unprepared for the kind of trauma that can level a nation. It was a totally new kind of distress, like I was consumed by a grief that was just too big for my body to hold. This, I think, is patriotism.
But patriotism can be a funny thing, especially in the South, where it often threatens to devolve into something much more nefarious. Local goons started throwing sandwiches at my little brother as he walked to school; we're Indian, not Arab. Out in Arizona, a gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered for wearing a turban; he was Sikh, not Muslim. The ignorance was as alarming as the hysteria.
It almost seemed like the Incubus album released that fall stood in stark contrast to all this. Morning View is filled with anger, but not the sort of brain-dead sludge that defined the nü-metal the band shared airtime with. Instead, it feels like the very concept of aggression evolving before you: coarse distortions sloshing over carefully plotted time signatures and chord sequences, fury with a purpose.
This is a band whose biggest successes to date had been about courage in times of trouble ("Drive") and suicide by sheer world-weary disillusionment ("Pardon Me"). And then there's "The Warmth," from 1999's Make Yourself, which singer Brandon Boyd says gave him chills after the attacks. "My mind goes places with the content, especially when the atmosphere in the room or in the city is heavy with emotion," he says. "I remember playing that in New York City that week and a lyric that had a totally different meaning came rushing to the forefront and took on a new idea in an instant." He's referring to the opening: "I'd like to close my eyes and go numb, but there's a cold wind coming from the top of the highest high rise today... It wants me to discard the humanity I know, watch the warmth blow away. Don't let the world bring you down."
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So this outlook later shaped Morning View, the centerpiece of which is probably "Warning"a sort of carpe diem fable, freakishly menacing considering that every line ends on a prominent major chord. Its lyrics likewise now seem eerily prophetic: "When will we learn? When will we change? Just in time to see it all come down. Those left standing will make millions writing books on the way it should have been." The most violent guitars turn up on "Circles," a song about suppressing the urge to retaliate and trusting in cosmic retribution.
This, of course, was not the way the 9/11 aftermath played out. But there was a moment of tranquility in the immediate wake, as though the thought of any more bloodshed on either side was too much to process. Unity was heartening, and in some circles, a similar shared understanding also grew from this album as hushed voices started wondering together if this might be the future of rock. Kid A still loomed large, but Radiohead barely sounded like a rock band anymore, and standing in the generation-sized shadow cast by the evil cloud downtown, it was just comforting to have a tangible grasp on the future of anything at all. Morning View became a much-needed distraction without really being a distraction.
It is widely accepted that Bruce Springsteen created rock and roll's definitive response to 9/11 with The Rising. Fair enough. Developing an effective healing mechanism for a national tragedy takes a careful balance between commercial viability and creative visionif nobody hears it, it can't help. But The Rising didn't come out until the following summer, and Springsteen didn't even consider writing it until a fan called out at him through a car window a few days after the attacks. "We need you now," said the driver; you have to wonder what that guy was listening to as he sped off.
Morning View had started spitting out singles in the late summer of 2001, so it can't really be considered a proper response; it was just the scared and overextended guidance counselor who stared at the intercom switch for fifteen minutes, figuring out what to tell the kids. It became evocative and powerful by accident, or by default, because there was no other option; the album's title came from the name of the street on which it was recorded, but at the time, it felt like an instruction to look at the coming days with the quiet optimism inherent in a sunrise. This was when the police were universally hailed as heroic first responders instead of regularly antagonized, and Morning View unwittingly captured that brief moment when you'd probably buy the cop some coffee instead of nervously scurrying away.
This past July, Incubus released If Not Now, When? to very little fanfare. The cover is an image of Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who schemed his way past the World Trade Center security guards and crossed between the twin towers in 1974. After the 2008 release of Man On Wire, a film chronicling his exploits, the image of his walka solitary figure floating high above Manhattan between monuments now missingemerged as an oddly soothing remembrance. This was the role that Morning View played for some a decade ago, if not as the centerpiece of the tragedy, then at least as the infrastructure with which to navigate it. Letters, photos, coffee cups, recruitment brochureswe all carry artifacts. But sometimes you also need a wire.
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