[19 March 2009]
It would probably shock most connoisseurs of music to suggest that Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity is one of the most important albums of the 1990s. Clarity, alongside Nevermind, OK Computer, The Chronic, Odelay, Loveless, or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill? Surely not. But Clarity was a key factor in the migration of emo, a small subgenre of punk rock, into a massive, culture-altering phenomenon which now dominates a large portion of the popular music universe. Despite being a commercial failure and receiving mostly negative critical reviews, Clarity slowly became an unlikely touchstone for an entire generation of musicians, mesmerized by its sprawling complexity and drawn in by its tuneful accessibility. A major-label band that continued to put out independent EPs and limited-release split singles, Jimmy Eat World formed a crucial bridge between DIY punk and mainstream rock, with their 2001 breakthrough Bleed American helping to catapult emo into mainstream consciousness. But it was Clarity that remained the torchbearer, and is an album that continues to be a beloved and oft-cited influence for musicians in a vast array of styles and genres.
February 23, 2009 was ten years to the day of the album’s initial release, and to celebrate the anniversary, Jimmy Eat World kicked off a ten-date tour in which they would perform the album straight through each night. For this, the first date of the tour, the group actually had one of the bands that opened their original Clarity record release show, Reubens Accomplice, open for them again. (No Knife opened most of the dates.) They chose mostly mid-level venues for the tour (which, unsurprisingly, sold out in minutes), but New York City’s Terminal 5 was one of the largest, and therefore least intimate. Those who had the good fortune to score tickets to the shows at Philadelphia’s Trocadero or Chicago’s Metro likely saw the best dates of the tour.
The band was not, by any stretch, rusty on the first night; according to their website, they’d rehearsed considerably in preparation for the tour, and the work was evident. From the moment they walked out over the sound of the Leslie organ that opens “Table for Glasses”, they held command over the material, without slipups or lengthy interruptions. The interpretations were strictly faithful to the original arrangements of the album, but there was a noticeable shift in the sound of things, as is perhaps inevitable after ten years and three further full-lengths. The guitars chugged a little more cleanly, the live drums punched a little more dazzlingly, the bass was less muddled and more at home in the balance. Jim Adkins’s voice has improved vastly in ten years, and he was not about to replicate the occasionally off-key rasp heard on Clarity, which would be silly even if it were possible. To be sure, Clarity‘s imperfections are part of what give it such character, but recreating mistakes so perfectly would smack of artifice, and better musicians seek to improve their old work, not preserve its flaws.
Strains of “Big Casino”, the lead single from their latest effort Chase This Light, could be heard in the evening’s performance of “Lucky Denver Mint”, Clarity‘s “hit single” (it had none, but this was the only one to get any sort of radio airplay). It was almost as if the group were slightly, almost imperceptibly, reinterpreting the song in light of what came after, presenting “Lucky Denver Mint” as a seed from which so much of their later work could be glimpsed. Here was the promise of “Bleed American”, “The Middle”, “Work”, and their other latter-day hits, manifest in an early stage—which, of course, was actually mid-career for the band, as they issued their first full-length in 1994.
There was no effort to make this an eggshell performance of smoky, fragile beauty, which it could have been, given Clarity‘s pedal point intro/outros, sudden segues, and extended codas. The band members took breaks between songs, talked to the audience, and occasionally made jokes. There were surprises—the lovingly recreated drum machine-driven electronics of “12.23.95”, the bowed guitar that replaced the violin opening of “Just Watch the Fireworks”, the live drums that brought home the glitchy bliss of the album’s closing track, “Goodbye Sky Harbor”—but the band was not trying to make anyone cry or have an epiphany. They were simply doing what they do best: Getting up on stage without drama or bombast and playing straight-ahead rock and roll, as ordinary people, to ordinary people.
“Goodbye Sky Harbor” lasted only eight minutes (half its length on the album), and as the band had been on stage for almost exactly one hour, the crowd knew to expect a return. Sadly, the encore didn’t include “Roller Queen”, the slowcore masterpiece that was cut from Clarity but appeared on their Fueled By Ramen EP about the same time. It commenced with “What I Would Say to You Now” and “No Sensitivity”, both non-album rarities from their Clarity-era splits. They then launched into a few crowd-pleasing hits, touching on “Work”, “Pain”, “The Middle”, and “Sweetness” before leaving for good. They didn’t have to, but one gets the sense that they felt obligated. Would a casual fan, someone roped into going on account of a spare ticket, feel ripped off if a Jimmy Eat World setlist didn’t include “The Middle”? Probably, but it must be fatiguing to always have to play the same song every time you play a show for the rest of your life, even at shows where you specifically told attendees you wouldn’t play that song before anyone paid a dime. Yet after sixteen years together, in the same lineup, and half of that time as bona fide rock stars, it’s clear that if they didn’t want to do it, they could call it quits any time. And on the first night of the Clarity x 10 tour, Jimmy Eat World demonstrated that, even when playing old standards, they’re not even close to finished.