Out from under

All this talk of another full-album 20th-anniversary tour (in this case, Incubus’ 1999 scratch-funk-pop trip Make Yourself) has got me thinking about how the albums we stumble into as wayward youths end up rippling outward in meaning for, oh, say, how about 20 years and then some.

So. Make Yourself.

It’s the sort of phrase you might be given from an aged monk in a quiet room, tinted in ocher and low-lit greens, after a long pause, following the only question you could cobble together in the haze of incense and curiosity: What should I be doing here?

“Should” is an interesting and irksome word, but it’s one with which we reckon constantly, I think. The method and practice of zazen is almost explicitly meant to dissipate the word “should,” to sweep it out the back door of the mind and into some non-place on another plane. If zazen means anything at all.

The answer to a question unasked, then: Make yourself.

The album fell into my hands a year later, through the Little Nicky soundtrack, of all things. (It was a great CD. Deftones. Incubus. Pharoahe Monch. Cypress Hill.) “Pardon Me” was on the soundtrack, and, for a kid only just coming into the world of 311, post-grunge, nu-metal, etc., the space-rock inflected with near-hip-hop vocal stylings was a real motherfucker. It was a hybrid along the lines of stuff I hadn’t yet entirely realized in pop culture. 11 years old. Whole world of music unfolding beyond me.

It could have been a different time. My birth could have been earlier, later, whenever. But my intersection with something like Make Yourself was preordained. Middle-class, white suburban Cleveland. Friends. We all played guitar, or something approximating guitar. Started skating and listening to heavier stuff. Time ticked onward. High school. Hip-hop, the old-school stuff at first, then more metal, strange indie wanderings backward into the mid-90s and so on. Started smoking weed.

Along the way — and I remember this clearly, because I played this sort of stuff all the time in my ’93 Geo Prizm, en route to wherever, ca. 2005 or so — we skipped into Incubus’ earlier records. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and Enjoy Incubus and, my personal favorite for a spell, Fungus Amongus. This is where we found seeds sown in the vein of funk, deep DJ scratchwork, psilocybin-infused lyrical humor and all that. Seeds that would blossom in different ways for all of us. For me, this music scanned as a ticket into early hallucinogen experiments and a steady appetite for cannabis. Antics ensued. The music never stopped.

S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is a powerful album, and I think it’s necessary to fully understand how the band was changing during the Make Yourself sessions.

Released two years priors, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. spends significantly more energy on the mania of late youth, red-eyed adventures at 3 a.m., conspiratorial questions. The album is relentless, and it works both in a chill, late-night billiards sort of way and a head-banging surrealistic binge. The band poured its previous years of touring and stoney head games into these songs: “Deep Inside” is one that stands out for obvious reasons. And the transition into “Calgone”? This is the mark of a paranoid beast, and only those who’ve gone over the edge of goofy-ass sativa will understand. I think.

That’s what this music means to me, years later.

“Come sail aboard S.S. Nepenthe!”

Then came Make Yourself. It’s a remarkably cleaner record, and not simply because of track No. 9. The lyrics contend more with self-actualization than lunatic drug fun. Anyone who’s eaten the god’s flesh of mushrooms will know the sense of clarity and crystalline sight that comes in the wake of a mind-altering trip in the woods or along the riverbed or in some weird, wood-paneled living room. You can’t help but see things differently. Decode the external world in a more fundamental sense.

You can’t return to the source, but you can deliver its promises into the enveloping future-now.

The only response to the unasked question, baked under haze of sunlight and hallucination, is: Make yourself. Take what you’ve learned and create your world.

And the only sensible way to do that? “Resist, unlearn, defy.” This is pure zazen.

I fail more often than I succeed, but I’m still unlearning all the built-up mental sediment from the foggy past. Still working on the resistance to something unseen, something felt in between the waves and radiation pulsating groggily between the present moment and the collapsible planes that revolve around me.

If it takes 20 years, and then some, of listening to music, sonic roots driving deeply inward, then so be it. There are far worse ways to spend my time.

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