[15 October 2007]
Years before faceless, angst-ridden acts drifted endlessly in and out of MTV’s revolving doors, Jimmy Eat World had all the elements of the so-called emo genre laid out. They helped the sound to make the great leap across from the indie scene to mainstream at the turn of the millennium. Jimmy Eat World has continually proven their worth as a unique group of the highest order, refusing ever to be narrowed into the stereotype of ‘that band that had that hit “The Middle”’.
The key to their success has always been about defying trends and bandwagons and evolving in their own direction with each release. Their themes are universal rather than teen-tailored. At its best, their music is an affair that bubbles with every sort of feeling that rings true. 1999’s Clarity was a pretty rough starter, but already showed signs of their knack for deft lyricisms channeled through kinetic post-punk heritage. 2001’s Bleed American developed those strengths further and delivered a hook-laden, bolder set of anthems. Meanwhile 2004’s Futures tied stadium riffs in with more visceral songwriting.
The Arizona crew have a perfect track record up until now (excluding perhaps the sheer amount of time they take to deliver each studio outing), which is why Chase This Light is so disappointing. It’s the first Jimmy Eat World album that is uniformly average. Every chapter in their back catalog so far has built on the previous in some conclusive way, but Chase This Light doesn’t. It sounds like a weaker, limper version of their last work, Futures. High-profile producer Butch Vig was once accused by Kurt Cobain of over-softening Nirvana’s tough spots during the hammering out of Nevermind for commercial success, but in Jimmy Eat World’s case, he snuffs the life out of them instead.
Vig’s shimmering, top-notch knob-fiddling might work in the favor of his own outfit Garbage, but it comes off processed and sterile on a Jimmy Eat World record. Production is crucial to such a ‘big’-sounding effort as this, where the songs are so shiny they practically tinkle and sparkle out of the stereo. But the texture they shoot for is lost in syrup, and the anthems they want to emerge are all muffled. On several tracks Zach Lind’s percussion unit sounds so mechanical (“Here It Goes”, “Always Be”) you’d swear it was a drum machine, but he’s still not the worst off member here. That honor must go to Tom Linton, whose guitars don’t blaze like they used to, but are assigned to listless plonking or strumming somewhere in the background, without any style or signature.
Nearly as vital is the songwriting, something you are forced to pay attention to in the wake of the album’s gloss. Every phrase uttered from the mouth of frontman Jim Adkins is as good as delivered direct to your aural doorstep, then pounded out in echoing, crystal-clear surround sound. Unfortunately, most of it is juvenile and sapped in self-important, happy-go-lucky sentiments. Downright inane lines like “I have a ringing in my ears”, opening “Let It Happen”, are too jarring to ignore. It’s a problem compounded by the album’s sluggish tempo, which stalls most of the time in middle ground. “Electable (Give It Up)”, one of the few occasions on which Chase This Light possesses some real energy, is dealt a fatal blow once the awful “oh-ohs” of the chorus hit, sung in tasteless doo-wop style. The track never recovers.
Amazingly, this fault doesn’t affect lead single “Big Casino” much. It’s predictable to be sure and has some unbelievably tacky vocal slips (“There’s lots of smart ideas in books I’ve never read / When the girls come talk to me I’ll wish to hell I had”), displaying all too clearly the dangers in writing autobiographical songs. But it’s a decent rocker with one of the best examples of a soaring ‘emo’ chorus of the year.
“Feeling Lucky”, on the other hand, reeks of amateurish pop-punk, the very definition of ‘filler’. Meanwhile “Like She’ll Always Be” feels gimmicky and insincere. Semi-ballad “Carry You” is little better, its swishy acoustic guitars drawing immediate comparisons to the far superior “Kill”, all of these numbers dragged down immensely by their glaring lyrical shortcomings. The members of Jimmy Eat World are not teenagers anymore, and even if they haven’t noticed, the rest of us most certainly have, meaning that lines like “Oh babe I know it’s alive / And somewhere for us to find tonight / Chase this light with me” (the title track) just don’t cut it.
Ironically, “Gotta Be Somebody’s Blues” is the experimental number of the lot, cranking up the Beatles’ old collage of strings from “Eleanor Rigby” to an even further extreme, pulling off an oddly bitter, unnerving experience, though one that doesn’t particularly invite repeated spins.
The Jimmy Eat World of 2001 would laugh at the travesty they have become on their sixth album. Any band that resorts to yelling “Hey! Hey!” for their hooks and panting “Ha, ha, ha” in their bridges is going through the motions rather than creating an accurate reflection of their soul. More disappointing than that, though, is the fact that there is hardly anything groundbreaking to be found in Chase This Light’s 40 minutes, which is less than we’ve come to expect from this band. There is hope: “Say whatever you want, cos I can laugh it off”, Adkins boasts on “Let It Happen”. Jimmy Eat World obviously still has spirit somewhere below their sheeny surface.