Being the best emo band on today’s rock scene is a bit like being the best bullfighter in Alaska. Sure, such a band has some cachet, but that doesn’t mean it’ll earn the respect of the big boys. Mesa, Arizona’s, Jimmy Eat World are arguably the face of emo here in the early 21st century (with apologies to Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst) thanks to their 2001 gem of a single, “The Middle”. The band’s ubiquity spawned countless knockoffs of varying quality (see JamisonParker, Planes Mistaken for Stars), none of which matched Jimmy Eat World’s one-two punch of Jim Adkins’ heartfelt lyrics and vocals and Tom Linton’s arena-ready guitar riffs. Now, in 2004, Jimmy Eat World are faced with the task of expanding on the promise of their self-titled disc (from which “The Middle” sprang) while separating themselves from the pack they helped create. With Futures, consider both challenges bested.
The old reviewer cliché goes something like “This disc is so clean-sounding, you could eat dinner off of it!” Cliches wouldn’t be clichés if they weren’t true, and yes, Futures is one of those shiny-sounding albums. Producer Gil Norton (Echo and the Bunnymen, Pixies, Foo Fighters, among many others) shines Linton’s guitars to a high sparkle and pushes Adkins’ vocals way to the front of the mix. Again, these are Jimmy Eat World’s chief assets, so credit Norton for knowing to play to the band’s strengths.
Admittedly, no song on Futures matches the ebullience of “The Middle”; it’s much darker overall, but light peeks through in all the right places. Adkins’ vocals on the opening title track are a generation’s rallying cry: “We’re wide awake and we’re thinking!” he promises, buoyed by an ethereal bridge of oohs and aahs; “Just Tonight…” pulses with life, courtesy of drummer Zach Lind and roars like a race car down a dusty stretch of Arizona blacktop.
Good as these tunes are, they don’t prove that Jimmy Eat World are looking to expand their sonic palette; that responsibility falls to the album’s emotional centerpiece, the six-and-a-half minute soaring piano ballad, “Drugs or Me”. It’s truly an epic song, loaded with aching strings, atmospheric guitar whooshes and gut-punch lyrics like “I can’t tell you from the drugs”. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s a rewarding one. Good luck to the Jimmy Eat World clones to try to match “Drugs or Me”.
Needless to say, the tracks following “Drugs or Me” that close the album can’t match the heights attained or depths plumbed by that song. It’s just as well—they are light(er)weight songs that provide needed counterbalance. “Nothingwrong” is the hardest-rocking song on Futures—it’s the most obvious descendent from the self-titled disc—and in one lyric sums up Gen Y’s ennui: “We’ve done nothing wrong / But we’ve done nothing”. “Night Drive” is much brighter than its title would suggest, with pretty piano flourishes, and closer “23” proves - if you weren’t convinced by the album’s 10 preceding tracks—that Adkins’ heart is as big as his band’s sound: Over violin swells, he swoons, “I’m here and I’m ready / Hold on tight”, then yields to yet another soaring guitar solo.
Not that they’ve ever owned up to or renounced their emo status, but with Futures, Jimmy Eat World sound committed to establishing themselves as a great band, not just a great emo band.