The story of how I first came across new music as a kid is probably the same as it is for a lot of people around my age. My house didn’t have Sky TV so whenever I was around a friend’s house the wealth of new music available via satellite channels was a luxury. Now that I think about it, I can actually list a number of bands I discovered this way, the song and video in question and even the house I was at when I first encountered them; Limp Bizkit (My Way); Hundred Reasons (If I Could); System of a Down (Chop Suey, obviously); P.O.D. (Alive—hey, I was young); I could go on.
It actually makes me feel old to think that so much of the music of my childhood was actually dictated by the likes of Kerrang!, Scuzz and MTV2 in those brief encounters, but it’s also weird to think how large a role the visual element of those music videos actually played in forming my impression of their artists. Blink-182’s videos cemented them as the essential goofball punks, Sum 41 a similar but more Cali pool party sunshine touch, Slipknot as the ultimate taboo, and so on.
In 2015 the music video has morphed into all manner of things, from DIY home-produced pieces to 8-minute pop epics complete with opening credits and narratives. The moment a big artist drops a big video, you already know about it thanks to social media and the like letting you know what a big deal it is. When I was 8 years old I remember other kids coming into class and telling me about the new video they had seen that weekend and the torture of having to wait to be around someone else’s house to catch a glimpse of it.
None of those music videos, however, succeeded in creating a more tangible, visceral experience than Jimmy Eat World’s ‘Bleed American’. Even today, everything about that video just feels totally perfect. The first time I saw it, the shaking cameras, the sudden burst of sound, the shadows and light and the sweat-soaked hair, it was just so fucking intense that for those three minutes they were the ultimate band. I bought the CD the next week.
The album on which that song appeared, 2001’s Bleed American, is generally viewed as Jimmy Eat World’s biggest hit, and there’s every reason from facts and figures to cultural mythology to back that up. Firstly, it features some of the band’s most famous songs; Sweetness, A Praise Chorus and The Middle—a song which many fans view as a double-edged sword, skyrocketing them into the public consciousness, but doing so with a song that is overall entirely unreflective of their true sound. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a quintessential late summer drive-time rock song, but Jimmy Eat World was just never really about that vibe to me. Leave that to Springsteen.
Then you’ve got the phenomena of seeing an album and a song that you know and love suddenly transform before your eyes. Released in July of 2001, the events of September 11th led the band’s record label to be concerned that ‘Bleed American’ was too provocative a title, subsequently renaming the album as ‘Jimmy Eat World’ and its eponymous single as ‘Salt, Sweat, Sugar’. In this era of the early days of the Internet, there were really very few sources to consult that might explain why the CDs you were walking past in MVC were now inexplicably different to the one you had purchased only months before. As a result, original copies of the album have a strange aura to them, comparable in some ways to the Heaven’s Gate colourway Nike Decades or Manhunt 2, withdrawn not for their offensiveness per se, but the anxiety of offence itself.
That duality of feeling towards ‘The Middle’ as a single is one that has since returned in my listening to Bleed American. Not because of the music, however—I can’t be clearer about this, it’s such as great album—but almost because the effect of the album’s success mirrored that of its upbeat, poppy single.
After watching that video and listening to that album, Jimmy Eat World began for me, personally. It would be almost three years until they released their next album, ‘Futures’, and that CD sat on loop in Walkmans and disc drives that whole time. At the mercy of the altar of digital television, how was I to know that there was an album buried just behind ‘Bleed American’ that was infinitely better in almost every single way? As a result, it wouldn’t be until about five years later that I would discover an album that has since solidified in my mind as one of the greatest albums of the 90s, ‘Clarity’.
If ‘Bleed American’ is Jimmy Eat World’s big hitter, ‘Clarity’ is without a doubt their magnum opus. Clocking in at 1 hour and 5 minutes in length, it dwarfs its successor by twenty minutes and doesn’t let up for a single second.
For all of its amazing qualities, one of my biggest criticisms of ‘Bleed American’ is its pacing; after dropping you into the eye of the storm with its title track, you’re followed up with two more fast-paced rock songs before ‘Your House’ suddenly switches up the entire vibe, and then back into ‘Sweetness’? I’m often tempted to make my own track listing for that album because it really makes no sense. It almost makes it too easy for the casual listener to blaze through the first three tracks, skip forward one, enjoy the hit singles and then hit the eject button. Every song on ‘Bleed American’ is great in its own right, but there’s no sense of something tying everything together collectively at all.
The pacing on ‘Clarity’ is a master class in how to build a cohesive listening experience. ‘Table for Glasses’ lulls you in with a song that encapsulates much of the band’s softer, more melodic qualities, before ‘Lucky Denver Mint’—the breakout single of that album—balances things out with some measured aggression.
By the time you’ve reached the next four tracks you have a firm idea of the different directions this band can take you in and nothing comes either as an unwelcome surprise or predictable yawn. Flashes of synthesized drums and digital flutters in ‘Lucky Denver Mint’ and ‘12.23.95’ lay the subtle groundwork for things to come, but nothing feels out of place. After a quiet break, you’re back into the band’s signature melodic rock style, the album culminating as a crescendo, gradually rising, dipping slightly and then exploding into its eponymous track. If the whole album ended on the final scream in ‘Clarity’, you could happily call it a day. Twelve tracks, fifty minutes, job done. Instead, you have ‘Goodbye Sky Harbor’.
Of all the bands I might think of having a sixteen-minute song, Jimmy Eat World has never been one of them. These guys are the masters of the 3-to-4 minute emo-rock classic; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle-8, chorus, end. But this song is without a doubt the greatest thing the band has ever done, something genuinely worthy of the label ‘masterpiece’.
What starts as a steady, punching song with pensive lyrics and rolling drums slowly ebbs after just two and a half minutes, clearing the way for a thirteen-minute instrumental driven by ten bars of repeating chords that just wash over you, each repetition introducing a new layer of melodies, synths, organs, percussion or hums and las. Every single time I listen to this song I discover something new hidden amongst the thick wall of sound that it pours over you. And then in the final three minutes it explodes into an electro-synth-pop epic that could have come straight out of The Postal Service’s ‘Give Up’ and might even have been the standout track. But it didn’t. It was on a Jimmy Eat World album, four years before.
It’s really no exaggeration to say that there are so many flutters in this album that both encapsulate the raw elements of emo that had been crafted by bands before it and then laid the foundation for countless bands to follow. In that final song alone you can hear American Football, Small Brown Bike, 65daysofstatic, YOURCODENAMEIS:MILO, Silversun Pickups, Minus the Bear and an endless list of other bands.
In the aftermath of groups like My Chemical Romance, Funeral for a Friend, Good Charlotte, Paramore et al, it’s frustrating that the term ‘emo’ has been sullied with notions of all black outfits, drainpipe jeans, gravity-defying haircuts and Emily Strange pencil cases. Any plaid shirt-wearing Kinsella family enthusiast will undoubtedly clarify the true definitions of emo faster than any backpack hip-hop fan will lecture to you about the last “good” rap album, but it’s true that the story of emotional rock in the 1990s is much deeper than contemporary understandings of the genre permit.
Just as post-hardcore evolved out of the stifling aggression of the hardcore punk scene, emo emerged as a response to the dominance of cold, hard, masculinity. Bands like American Football, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker and Death Cab for Cutie opened the doors for the expression of emotion for a subculture (predominately white male, for better or worse) that hadn’t really existed in the mainstream that way before.
One of the best things I ever read about Jimmy Eat World was a review of one of the band’s later albums that criticised frontman Jim Adkin’s continued reliance upon lyrical tropes of the emo genre, as if this wasn’t one of the guys that helped to create those tropes in the first place. It’s surely a strange world to live in as a musician, being criticised for forming a style and sticking with it as people share YouTube videos paying tribute to the cinematic continuity of Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick et al.
That earlier image of emo—the button-up shirts and chinos, floppy mid-Western churchgoing haircuts and slightly unkempt facial hair—is probably more appealing to me precisely for the unimposing normality of it all. Even now, listening to Mike Kinsella/‘Owen’ sing about topics from break ups and bad friends to parenthood, the visual aspect is as important as the sound.
This is not bleached hair and Babyliss straighteners, nor stretched ears and skinny jeans. This is the raw unadulterated feeling that a lot of men and women of all ages experience but, particularly in the case of the former, are too afraid, preconditioned or smothered in the concrete of masculinity to express. It wasn’t about creating an image of the emotional being, but the reassurance that somebody who otherwise looks so utterly middle of the road might still be that way.
All of this brings me back to that original video that introduced me to Jimmy Eat World. Four guys in shirts and slacks and average haircuts unleashing three minutes of completely unrestrained energy beneath a lyric as revealing as ‘I’m not alone ‘cause the TV’s on, I’m not crazy ‘cause I take the right pills every day.’ This was the image that would stick with me every time I listened to the band over the years, and the one that makes every sentiment expressed in ‘Clarity’ so much more reassuring. We loved Blink-182 for their goofy theatrics and we loved Slipknot for their rage and their masks, but the best part of Jimmy Eat World was the sense that you could drop all of that and it would still be okay. That’s clarity.