Oh, Clarity. Where have you gone? Why can’t you come back? Why have you left me alone?
I speak of course of Jimmy Eat World’s second full-length, the apex of its ever-lengthening career, and a paragon of emo when emo’s flame was still burning bright. Released in 1999, it put the likes of the Promise Ring, Modest Mouse, Mineral, Sunny Day Real Estate, and all those, sad, sad, pensive bands to shame while said bands were creating the best music of their careers. It was a mainstay in my Discman, filtered through a cassette adapter in my old Mazda truck that possessed only one operational speaker when I was 17 years old. Attached to, and enthralled by, its apparent simplicity yet simultaneous complexity, each song graced my ears over and over again, with lyrics confessional, thoughtful, and challenging, and music shimmering and beautiful even in its most aggressive moments. To this day, I still cherish it. Static Prevails (1996) was a strong debut, but Clarity was such a monumental leap forward that I knew, I just knew, the band would evolve into a musical force to make naysayers and hipsters eat their arrogant little words.
And then there was Bleed American (inexplicably going self-titled after the attacks of September 11th, 2001). After one listen, I was in full-on contempt mode. A pop record? A fucking POP record? Not just a pop record, but one with treacly ballads like “Hear You Me” and “My Sundown”, so ready for dishonest touching moments on WB programs and the last dance at the prom. And let’s not forget embarrassing misfires like “Get It Faster” which set eyeballs rolling with its pseudo-metal interludes; and added to that, the confusing phenomenon of “Cautioners” and “A Praise Chorus”, which are literally, chord-for-chord, the exact same song, albeit with slightly different arrangements, tempos, and instrumentation.
Yet, it all grew on me, and as Jimmy Eat World continued to decline, Bleed American became their second most adventurous album. And I do love pop. I just didn’t get what I wanted.
The year 2004 gave us Futures, even more sheen and shine and radio-readiness. Sporting about a 60/40 ratio of excellence to worthlessness (or mediocrity), it nonetheless served as a harbinger of apprehension as the songwriting got lazier and predictability came closer and closer to the forefront. Still, a sensitive sap like me could not resist the overblown, overemotional gradiosity of “23” or “The World You Love”, and even possible rock throwaways like “Just Tonight” and “Nothingwrong” lashed out with the same aggression as Clarity‘s “Your New Aesthetic” or Bleed American‘s title track. But the Futures experience became perplexing when the group released an EP containing three tracks cut from the album, each one superior to any song on the actual record (I’m talking here about Stay on My Side Tonight, which also featured a bland cover of Heatmiser’s “Half Right” and putrid, electronic remix of “Drugs or Me”, the worst song from Futures). Thus, the apprehension was warranted. Jimmy Eat World were simply becoming worse, but the albums, for all intents and purposes, were still good.
Chase This Light sealed the deal, completely eschewing any attempt at the sonically picaresque. What we got was strictly and unabashedly, commercially-viable, radio-friendly pop/rock; yet because frontman and primary songwriter Jim Adkins had such a talent for songwriting (not only in classic pop arrangements but in melody as well), it was still a solid album. Hardly the same band by that time, but still a solid album. Chase This Light is a paradox—something disposable you’re compelled to hang on to, something unimpressive that is by no means unpleasant. But a rebound, a rebound, please, I wanted a rebound, I needed that proverbial “return to form”.
It is 2010 and now we have Invented. I didn’t expect much after previewing the group’s first single, “My Best Theory” (an unspectacular, repetitive feat of alternative rock ruined by its plodding rhythm and lack of energy), and considering the band’s continual descent into mediocrity. But I still believed in Adkin’s World, and thought, even if the goup’s core audience is adolescents and I’m almost 30, good pop songwriting is still good pop songwriting. And after all, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a big fan of Fall Out Boy.
Jimmy Eat World didn’t break the pattern. Invented is the worst album of its career. And sadly, there aren’t any great moments, there are the good moments (O, the generosity!), but mainly there are only passable moments.
Opener “Heart is Hard to Find” doesn’t instill fear in the devoted fan, giving us the textures of Bleed American, the melodies of Futures, and the gleam of Chase This Light. It’s safe play, but enjoyable nonetheless. “Evidence” is a continuation of their settled-down, radio-friendly pop/rock, but the dominant two-chord repetition does nothing to showcase Jimmy Eat World’s once-astounding songwriting knack. Other slices of blah include “Coffee & Cigarettes” where the band’s tried and true sound is just too damn tried at this point, and the title track, which promises something developmental with its lengthy running time, but delivers something so simplistic it’s only too easy to overlook entirely. And that’s kind of a summation of this whole recorded excursion.
Bright spots: “Higher Devotion”, surprisingly dark and even more surprisingly begging for a dance-floor remix, nearly recalling a more organic Depeche Mode. It may not be revelatory, but at least it’s something interesting. The strongest track here is “Cut”, delivering familiarity that is saved by excellence in arrangement and instrumentation, proving that Jimmy Eat World still have “it”, but seemingly want to dole “it” out sparingly.
When I heard Jimmy Eat World was reuniting with Mark Trombino, the producer who manned the boards and added so much to the textures of “Clarity”, I was delighted, and again, looking for that return to form. But it’s a complete antithesis! Here, such a softened production steals potential energy from numerous tracks. At least with previous efforts, even mediocre tunes had a punch and a crunch, an undeniable inertia. How could this be the same team? Why is everything so soft, so muted, and so interminably slow? And most of all, even if I’m taking this out of context, what exactly have Jimmy Eat World “invented” here?
// Notes from the Road
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