Sugar on the Asphalt
Jimmy Eat World "Bleed American'
This article is a year overdue.
Last July, an album slipped into record stores so anonymously one would never have guessed it was issued by mega-label DreamWorks. Actually, one would never have guessed the band was even on a major label, considering they'd already recorded two albums for Capitol that had largely gone nowhere.
Through no fault of the band, Mesa, Ariz., four-piece Jimmy Eat World, this latest album nearly went nowhere as well. Jimmy Eat World felt the repercussions of 9/11 more acutely than a lot of bands, and not just because they wound up canceling a slew of tour dates, including a stop at Emo's.
The terrorist attacks, or more accurately, the climate of suspicion and hyper-patriotism brought on by the attacks, effectively pulled the rug out from under the album's lead single. Like "Tuesday's Gone," "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and thousands of others, the song was deemed inappropriate for America's suddenly sensitive ears. Not because it was a stinging indictment of cultural complacency or even because it might be advocating self-medication both legal and illegal, but because it, like the album, had the spectacularly ill-timed misfortune to be titled "Bleed American."
But Jimmy Eat World is hardly the second coming of Rage Against the Machine. Even "Bleed American" lyrical barbs like "I'm not crazy 'cause I take the right pills" stem from singer Jim Adkins' experiences with panic disorder while touring in support of the band's previous album, 1999's earth-toned Clarity. None of the other 10 songs on the album, its title adjusted to simply Jimmy Eat World, could be considered ripped from the headlines.
And yet the album continues to hang around the middle of Billboard's charts, and has in fact gone platinum. The reason is as simple as its song structures: this unassuming, tune-filled album has effortlessly plugged into the Zeitgeist in a way few recent recordings have. Earlier this year, reviewing their appearance with Green Day and Blink-182 in Dallas as part of the Pop Disaster tour, SPIN called Jimmy Eat World "the soundtrack to everyone's after-school special." There's more truth in that flip statement than the writer probably intended.
Jimmy Eat World's prevailing themes are things people don't like to talk (or even think) about: emotional indifference, missed personal connections, absent friends and loved ones, moral dilemmas, the basic struggle to get through the day without going to pieces. Two representative refrains are "You'll change your mind come Monday, and take your steps away from me" ("Cautioners") and "Are you listening? Sing it back" ("Sweetness").
Time and again, Jimmy Eat World relies on music to prevent these serious subjects from becoming heavy-handed. But it's not necessarily just the music they make on their instruments, though their melodic gifts rival those of recent tourmates Weezer. Instead, it's the music they hear in their heads or on the radio, which frequently resurfaces in their songs. "A Praise Chorus" appropriates parts of Tommy James' "Crimson & Clover" and Madness' "Our House" to cast a night on the town as a call to arms: "I'm on my feet, I'm on the floor, I'm good to go. All I need is just to hear a song I know."
This is how Adkins answers the questions posed in the song's beginning: "Are you gonna spend your life wondering, standing in the back, looking around?" Similarly, in "The Authority Song," he hopes unlocking the mystery of "what the jukebox knows" will give him the confidence to ask a girl to dance, all the time wondering, "I don't seem obvious, do I?"
The band also gets the most out of the timeless pop strategy of masking broken hearts in upbeat tempos. If anything, it works too well: The almost voyeuristic bedroom conversation "Get It Faster" ("I'm going out, I don't care if you're angry") follows the singer strand by strand to the end of his rope before boiling over into a torrential chorus -- as if he could drown out his tears by rocking hard enough.
The razorlike guitars of Adkins and lead guitarist Tom Linton and unflinching rhythm section of bassist Rick Burch and drummer Zach Lind ratchet up the tension in the already fraught "Sweetness" to code-red levels, while the sunny harmonies of "If You Don't, Don't" illuminates the tragic confusion felt by lovers who can't seem to stay on the same page. Although it's supposedly a street name for cocaine, a phrase from "Bleed American" neatly encapsulates this idea of sweet sing-along melodies papering over the hard, sticky truths beneath: "Sugar on the asphalt."
But there are times when a sweet melody is just a sweet melody, and there are songs on Jimmy Eat World that don't get any sweeter, i.e., the gossamer elegy "Hear You Me." Credited with helping bring the tunefully intense punk-rock offshoot known as "emo" to fruition with their two Capitol albums, Clarity and 1996's angular Static Prevails, on Jimmy Eat World the band has done something even more impressive: given rock & roll a much-needed shot in the arm, at least as much as better-hyped bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives. They've done this by daring to write about something besides bitter breakups and lack of parental affection, and just as importantly, by not overthinking.
Therein lies the secret behind Jimmy Eat World's piéce de resistance, the three minutes of up-with-people overdrive known as "The Middle." Songs just don't come any more straightforward than Adkins exhorting his audience to "live right now" and "just be yourself." Even if it's not be the best song on the album (my money's on "The Authority Song" or "If You Don't, Don't"), it's the best song on radio this year, climbing all the way to No. 5 on Billboard's R&B-fogged Hot 100 and earning the band a date with Cameron Diaz on Saturday Night Live.
A happy ending for a group too talented to remain in small-club obscurity, certainly, but more than that, a reminder that music doesn't have to be cryptic or difficult or esoteric to have real meaning. Sometimes four chords and a message do just fine.
As you get closer to 30, you start to notice things, especially if you've been in any way involved with the music business. You notice that, although it's lasted this long, the adolescence you thought was never-ending can't last much longer. As much as our culture worships youth and idolizes the young, your time under the incubator lamp is almost up. You wonder how much longer you can keep going to club shows without the 19-year-olds snickering behind your back -- too late -- and how much longer you can keep dodging avatars of responsibility like a mortgage, a family, a retirement plan. It's a scary time.
"I want to be so much more than this," Adkins sings on Jimmy Eat World's closing track, "My Sundown." This time, his tenor is not the plaintive, throbbing-vein howl of "Bleed American" or "The Middle" or "Sweetness." It's muted, pensive, resigned -- the voice of someone realizing his youthful dreams are just that, dreams, and are likely to stay that way. The song and album end on a fadeout, Adkins' longing to be more than this intertwined with the admonition "no one cares."
Since forming just out of high school in 1994 and enduring such major-label indignities as a proposed video shoot in a convenience store parking lot, Jimmy Eat World may have finally realized their dreams. But the jury's still out on the rest of us. That's why we need songs telling us everything will be all right. But even more than that, that's why we need songs that make us turn up the radio as loud as it will go and bang our hand on the steering wheel until it leaves a bruise -- because feeling something, even pain, is better than feeling nothing at all.
Jimmy Eat World plays the Austin Music Hall Thursday, Sept. 12.