I used to be in a band. We were alright, as rock bands go, but there always seemed to be something not quite "there", especially when it came to the songs we came up with. We tried to make 'em heartfelt, we tried to make 'em glorious, and the results weren't bad, just . . . well, just okay. Years after, I throw on Bleed American, and by about track five I feel like beating my head against the desk. Remember how back in high school there was always that one kid, the one who always seemed smarter, cooler, funnier, and more all-round together than you could ever hope to be, but always wished you were? Well, there's that feeling again. Damn. Jimmy Eat World are the band I wish my band could've been.
I had originally pegged these Arizona rockers as your average "emo" band, albeit one of the top-flight bands of the genre, but with this CD, they've absolutely transcended any label I can think up. There's plenty of stereotypical emo hallmarks here, like those pained, anguished yells, beautifully chiming guitars, and start-stop tempos, but it's the way said hallmarks are used that throws the whole thing on its head. For some reason, every time I hear Jimmy Eat World, I'm drawn back to comparisons with '80s pop more than anything else -- can it be possible that there're echoes of, say, Big Country and The Cars in the indie-rock of the new millennium? Given Bleed American as evidence, I'd have to say "sure, why not?" The thing about that kind of pop, if my rose-colored memory glasses serve, was that the emphasis was on writing good songs, not just on rocking out or screaming a lot. The Cars, for whatever you might think about them now, wrote amazing, intricate pop songs, and that's the kind of stuff this album brings to mind.
A couple of specific examples: the handclaps in "The Authority Song", not to mention the sing-song-y vocals, make it a fine power-pop track all dressed up distortion; "Sweetness" pairs beautiful Tears For Fears-style "whoa-oh-ohs" with raging, full-speed guitars just this side of Jawbox; "If You Don't, Don't" is nothing if not earnestly rocking pop with good timing (by which I mean that when the guitars come in at the break, they hit it at *exactly* the right moment); and the affirmation song "The Middle" incorporates some nice little '80s-ish electronic noises to fine effect, while the sung-shouted vocals urge the listener to hang on and keep trying. Throughout, the guitars roar like dual tornadoes in the headphones, and the drumming propels everything along like a well-tuned engine, making the band the aural equivalent of a sleek, high-flying jet plane.
Musical references aside, lyrically the band continues their examination of some of the same subjects they've hit in the past, particularly the nature of modern culture. The albums starts off with the fiery, angry "Bleed American", a cutting indictment of our horribly overmedicated/-mediated lifestyle -- "I'm not alone 'cause the TV's on, yeah / I'm not crazy 'cause I take the right pills" pretty much describes the mindset of about half the people I know, I'm afraid. "A Praise Chorus" takes on a slightly different subject, instead focusing on the sense of belonging in a "scene", comparing the rapturous crowd at a rock show to a church congregation clamoring to worship at the altar of their favorite band (and in the process, lyrically referencing "Crimson & Clover" and Madness, among others, and even guest-starring The Promise Ring's Davey Von Bohlen on vocals). And then, for one of the absolute highlights of the CD, "Hear You Me", the band turns in a meditative, regretful eulogy for a friend gone too soon, pulling the listener along with an incredible melding of slowly chiming guitars and echoed, delicate piano passages. Unlike a lot of songs of this type, this one actually manages to be sentimental and sweet but not cheesy or overdone, and that's quite an accomplishment.
Jimmy Eat World have made a picture-perfect sing-along-and-drive CD like no other, a new kind of rock for the days ahead. Nobody else does joyously beautiful, powerful rock anthems this well anymore (with the possible exception of the aforementioned Promise Ring). It's surprising, particularly in light of the way the band was unceremoniously dropped from their last "major" label deal, but the sound of Bleed American is a hopeful, self-reliant, forward-looking noise, a point hammered home by the album's closing track, the quiet, seemingly tranquil "My Sundown" -- "I want to be so much more than this . . . good, good night / I'll be fine." I guess it just goes to show, the coolest of kids can't be kept down for long; be thankful for that, and hope for more to come.