Nearly a decade removed from the mainstream breakthrough of Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World craft yet another solid album of their distinctive brand of guitar-pop.
The sincere, reverential brand of pop songwriting brilliance that Jimmy Eat World deals in is not the sort that wins respect from high-minded critics or hipsters. When the band first brought its sound to the masses in the summer of 2001 with Bleed American, the gatekeepers of cool were in thrall of the garage rock traditionalism of the Strokes and the White Stripes, compared to which the shimmer and polish of Jimmy Eat World’s class of guitar pop must have registered as the enemy. Helping matters even less was the band’s status (established on 1996’s major label debut Static Prevails and solidified on 1999’s beloved Clarity) as emo prototypes, inhabiting the genre’s middle period in the '90s between its underground punk roots and eventual ascension to Hot Topic fashion statement. As a result, Jimmy Eat World’s critical reputation found itself in the bizarre position of embodying both a selling out to the youth-targeted mainstream and a betrayal of ideals that, circa 2001, were no longer seen as being particularly worthy of upholding anyway.
Naturally, the fact that Bleed American went on to be a platinum-selling album did little to win over skeptics. Indeed, those who think themselves allergic to Jimmy Eat World’s style of broadly emotive, heart-on-sleeve guitar pop aren’t likely to be won over at this point, but what casual snipers tend to ignore or just outright miss is the true depth and range of the band’s sonic palette. Their crafty merger of one particular strain of underground rock with glossy pop hooks does not represent a watering down of the former in service of the latter, as many were quick to accuse, but rather an awed enthusiasm for both. On Bleed American, still the album where their pop instincts shone through the brightest, the band blasted through a set of songs that made direct reference to Tommy James and the Shondelles, Madness, Bad Company, They Might Be Giants, Motley Crue, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Jesus and Mary Chain like a group of kids drunk and disorderly on their love of great pop songs. This is music made by fans, not conceptual artists, which perhaps gets to the heart of what makes it so loathsome to those who demand a certain degree of danger or innovation in anything they embrace. Jimmy Eat World lacks the pretense to even fake otherwise.
Invented is Jimmy Eat World’s third album since Bleed American’s commercial breakthrough, and if it can be justly criticized (as it undoubtedly will be) for taking an if-it-ain’t-broke approach to the band’s formula, it can alternately be praised for the same. The factions of their fan base still holding out for a return to the ornate majesty of Clarity (and maybe the band’s full-album-performance tour in honor of that record’s tenth anniversary last year provided fresh cause of optimism) will probably be no more pleased with this album than they were with the previous three, but such expectations ignore the band’s steady evolution to begin with.
The carefully crafted atmosphere of Clarity and the more explicit nods to pop that followed now exist as a single unified tone in the band’s music and, on that level, Invented stands as the most solidly consistent of their last three releases. The mingling of pop sparkle, punk abrasion, and Clarity-style grandeur is much more streamlined here than it was on Futures (2004), which attempted to segregate the band’s competing impulses by frontloading the record with its most radio-friendly moments, while overburdening the record’s back half with its more ponderous, expansive ones. Nor does Invented ever downplay any one ingredient, as Chase This Light (2007) did in service of creating a more conventional, straightforward rock record. Invented (which might have been more accurately titled Refined), in other words, is far from being Jimmy Eat World’s best album, but it may be their most representative one.
Invented represents them well. Jimmy Eat World basically do three types of songs at this point, even if elements of each often run into the others, and Invented contains 12 more solid examples of each. First, there are what might get pegged as the obvious singles, songs like the alternately spiky and pounding “Evidence”, its smooth melodic build-ups giving way to an abrupt guitar refrain inviting carloads of teenagers to mosh on cue, or the bounding, forthright, post-collegiate coming-of-age narrative “Coffee and Cigarettes”, which adds the Grateful Dead and Otis Redding to their list of lyrical tips of the hat. The mid-tempo sway of “Movielike” is like an O.C. theme tailored for a set of characters smart enough not to engage themselves in prescribed soap operatics, while actual first single, the propulsive, dramatic “My Best Theory”, wields tense verses exploding into an anthemic, shout-along chorus. The second category of Jimmy Eat World songs are the ones that pay the most direct homage to their (and the whole of emo, really) roots in the kind of aggressive, idealistic punk of Fugazi and Rites of Spring. Despite being the type of thing that might bristle uncomfortably against the band’s (or, rather, their record label’s) commercial aspirations, Jimmy Eat World nevertheless still manage to sneak in about two of these per record, presented here in the form of the thick, pummeling “Audience Needs Action” and the slower but no less seething “Higher Devotion”.
It is the third category, however, that makes up what might very well be identified as the Jimmy Eat World sound. These are the songs that take all of the band’s more decidedly conventional elements and push them in the direction of something more layered and atmospheric, like the galloping acoustic guitar and handclaps that usher album-opener “Heart Is Hard to Find” towards its epic orchestral swells, or the way in which in the dense instrumental rushes and luminous guitar chimes of “Stop” and “Littlething” transform tiny personal heartbreak into arena-sized swoons. The somewhat maudlin “Cut” tries a little too hard to approximate Clarity’s measured grace, but the languid seven-minute title track winds and sprawls much more convincingly in the mode of Clarity favorites like “Table for Glasses” and “For Me This Is Heaven”, an abrupt roar exploding a third of the way through as if to make sure the song still has your attention. The shuffling finale “Mixtape” -- which, despite a title that hints at another pop-nostalgia trip, turns out to be an unsettlingly Haneke-like address to an ex-lover in which the narrator rewinds the end of their relationship like a cassette tape so that “you don’t get to walk away now” -- skips and sputters with a electronic drum click keeping oddly-paced time in the background before crawling its way towards an extended outro laced with horns and heavily processed vocal signs.
In the end, though, Jimmy Eat World’s neatest trick resides not in their ability to shift smoothly between these different modes, but rather in how plausibly they manage to present the entire combination as pop. If the band is in danger of anything at this point in their career, it may only be that by now they pull off this sound a little too effortlessly, leaving a noticeable lack of tension or novelty at the center. But if such comfort guarantees nothing more than another fine Jimmy Eat World album every three years or so, this is one case where familiarity breeds something quite the opposite of contempt.