While plenty of 1990s independent bands signed to major labels and were dropped almost as quickly, Jimmy Eat World‘s story doesn’t follow the same old tropes and, fortunately, has a different outcome. This is a redemption story. The nice guys don’t finish last this time. But it takes some time.
In 1999, Capitol Records failed to realize what they had with Jimmy Eat World, a rising band with a radio single featured in a major studio movie and a record stacked with more potential hits. Clarity is now one of the most revered emo records, but upon release, it flopped, even after the group went out and generated their own advance buzz for it. While Bleed American turned out to be Jimmy Eat World’s breakthrough in 2001, Clarity surely should have been.
Jimmy Eat World signed to Capitol after an independently distributed debut that is available on YouTube but nowhere else. Their first release for Capitol, Static Prevails, received zero label support but became a best-kept secret in the emo scene. Like many debuts, it is the sound of a band with great taste putting pieces together and laying the groundwork for their own path. Their reverence for Drive Like Jehu and Superchunk is evident in highlights like “Thinking, That’s All”, “Call It in the Air”, and “Seventeen”, and they slow down Sunny Day Real Estate-style for “In the Same Room” and “Anderson Mesa”. Static Prevails is a record that makes one eager to hear what happens when Jimmy Eat World grows into their potential, but it is also a fun listen in its own right.
Jimmy Eat World’s contract allowed them to record EPs and singles for other labels, and they seized this opportunity to record many split releases with some of the biggest and most acclaimed bands in the emo scene at the time, including Sense Field, Mineral, Jejune, and others. This promotion reached a high point with a self-titled EP released by then-fledgling Fueled by Ramen Records that contained “Lucky Denver Mint”, which was embraced by radio stations such as KROQ before Clarity was released. It also landed a placement in the Drew Barrymore comedy Never Been Kissed.
This should have been the springboard that launched Jimmy Eat World into the spotlight, but the label didn’t do much to keep the momentum going. They released “Lucky Denver Mint” as the lead single, then nothing after, despite an album full of potential hits. Clarity was a flop, but not to those who heard it. Just ask the emo bands that stormed MTV and radio in the early 2000s who cite it as a critical record for them.
From the first track, it is evident that Jimmy Eat World had leveled up significantly and chosen the right producer for the job. Mark Trombino, previously the drummer for Drive Like Jehu, who would go on to become the one of the most sought-after producers for emo bands. Here, he adds flourishes that make Clarity stand out from their peers, although it would come to inspire countless bands who adhered more closely to the playbook.
“Table for Glasses” is a slow build to a pretty conclusion, a left turn from the Pixies-influenced loud-quiet-loud opener of Static Prevails. From there, “Lucky Denver Mint” remains endlessly catchy and really should have dominated the last gasps of alternative radio. Curiously, “Your New Aesthetic” is a plea to “turn off the radio”, but those tense verses still build to a massive radio-ready chorus. “Believe in What You Want” seems to answer the suspicion of the mainstream with some reservations about the underground, too, contrasting the bald opportunism of some bands with the devotion of those who book the shows, make the flyers, and document the scene.
The first quarter of Clarity shows a band graduating from wearing their influences on their sleeves; while Static Prevails had earworms that could be dubbed “the Superchunk song” or “the Sunny Day Real Estate song”, this is a group that have found their identity. The middle of the record showcases their growth as songwriters. It is also where producer Mark Trombino’s flourishes of strings and subtle electronics elevate this collection of songs to a degree that many bands are still chasing.
That Capitol didn’t follow “Lucky Denver Mint” with the gorgeous “On a Sunday”, “Ten”, or “For Me This Is Heaven” is truly shocking. An edit of “Just Watch the Fireworks”, seems like it would have found a home on adult alternative radio (that used to be a thing, too). Or they could have released “Crush”, a sugar rush that isn’t too far removed from the major radio hits on Bleed American, or “Blister”, a rocker with another huge chorus. Clarity ends with another big swing, the 16-minute “Goodbye Sky Harbor”, which rides a pretty outro for around ten minutes and ends with a flurry of electronic drums, or until you excitedly jump back to the first track.
Jimmy Eat World’s professionalism set them apart from their peers from the start. There are no embarrassing lyrics to live down or explain, no stories of debauchery. Compared to their peers who crashed and burned, they have always seemed a little more grown-up. On stage, they have always been an incredibly locked-in unit. The lineup has remained the same since the start, and they seem to genuinely like each other and their fans.
While groups of this era and the 2000s cast aside nuance and subtlety for self-pity and misogynist lyrics, Jimmy Eat World steered clear of both, with a hint of mystery and always a respectful take on the subjects of their romance, which is a blueprint most of the best bands of the current emo scene follow. As with other perennials from the scene, such as the Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate, and American Football, their records endure because the lyrics maintain a balance of relatability and a little mystery to unpack.
Here comes the redemption part.
Rather than jump right into another contract after being dropped, Jimmy Eat World quickly recorded a follow-up on their own dime, inviting labels to the studio to hear the in-progress new songs. This sparked a bidding war, and the band signed with Dreamworks, who released Bleed American in the summer of 2001. The title track was the first single, a catchy rocker with another massive chorus and a more aggressive sound. It gained traction before 9/11, prompting the group to re-release the record self-titled for a while. Bleed American is more streamlined and immediate than Clarity, due in large part to Jimmy Eat World deciding not to spend time embellishing any of the songs despite continuing to work with Trombino.
They shrewdly followed the title track with “The Middle” in October 2001. It was just what we were looking for–an upbeat balm of a song that assured us everything would be alright in the wake of national tragedy and, by now, has comforted millions of listeners of all ages, including Taylor Swift. The music video for “The Middle” was a smash on MTV, with its underwear party. The follow-up single “Sweetness” was also a big hit, and the record ultimately went platinum. Meanwhile, new fans were also discovering Clarity, and its genre classic status was cemented a few years after its release. Years later, another spike in interest happened when Swift starred in an Apple Music commercial lip-syncing “The Middle”, who is on record as a fan.
Jimmy Eat World worked with Gil Norton on follow-up Futures, which sounded a little darker and more like Clarity and sold well but didn’t produce another zeitgeist-grabbing hit. Then there were a few label switches and some ups and downs, but they are in particularly fine form on releases such as Chase This Light, Integrity Blues (a crushing but hopeful divorce-themed album), and Surviving, which includes the 1980s pop nod “555”.
Jimmy Eat World’s career has looked increasingly like that of bands they admire. Like their favorites, the Pixies, the Jesus Lizard, and Guided by Voices, they keep a devoted fan base happy with incendiary, hit-packed live sets. With all the great groups who didn’t survive the major label gold rush of the 1990s, it’s particularly sweet to see Jimmy Eat World thriving 25 years on and continuing to hear their influence in the best the emo scene has to offer today.