Jimmy Eat World’s right-place-right-time crossover smash turns 20.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
“Hey, don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on.”
Jimmy Eat World bet on themselves. The Arizona quartet were supposed to be finished as major-label players, just one of the hundreds of victims in the great 90s misguided attempt to find the next Nirvana and Green Day equivalent in the alt-rock/pop-punk scenes by slapping fat contracts on the desk of any guitar band with even a modicum of buzz. Having been gifted one such contract by Capitol Records right out of high school, they spent major-label debut Static Prevails clashing repeatedly with their new masters who very clearly had no idea what they were supposed to do with their new signees and, when Static made little to no waves, their label effectively gave up trying to manage or promote them. On the bright side, as drummer Zach Lind noted, Capitol gave Jimmy the full control required to put together their masterpiece, 1999’s expansive experimental and utterly gorgeous Clarity, free from interference or pressure. On the down side, that also meant Capitol didn’t feel any compulsion to promote or, hell, even release the thing until radio station gravitation towards single “Lucky Denver Mint” forced their hand. Clarity was mostly acclaimed but didn’t sell and Jimmy were unceremoniously dropped. That, it seemed, was that.
Except no. Far from it. For one, as frontman Jim Adkins has repeatedly mentioned in interviews, the band were already used to doing everything by themselves anyway since Capitol weren’t doing anything to promote them during their time together, so nothing seemed to fundamentally change. For two, even though the albums weren’t shifting major-label units, Jimmy Eat World were gaining a following, getting invites for bigger and bigger support slots, attracting bigger and bigger crowds at shows, and even slowly breaking through in Europe despite their Capitol albums not actually being available for direct purchase on the continent, all as a result of relentless touring. And for three, the band were savvy financial planners who had squirrelled away enough money from touring and some stopgap independent releases to be able to record a new album all by themselves.
Reuniting with Static and Clarity producer Mark Trombino, who worked for free during the recording to keep costs down, one might’ve been tempted to call the results of this last roll of the dice the ultimate revenge against their former label were the band not surprisingly chill and mostly amicable about their time on the Capitol roster in interviews. If anything, one could consider it a mea culpa for the bitterness of Clarity’s “Your New Aesthetic,” a sneering swipe against the major-label clashes they’d had during Static and a not-so-veiled disdain for artists watering their sound down in search of mainstream radio success. The new record would feature almost no electronics, just two songs over five minutes, no unconventional time signatures, and certainly no sixteen-minute multi-movement dreamscapes rhapsodising John Irving novels. The album would instead be straightforward, immediately accessible, Pop as Pop could be, and immaculately clean even in the heavier numbers. Clarity sold 50,000 copies in those crucial first few months. Bleed American, which turns twenty today, almost quadrupled that and went platinum within a year.
That more direct, simple, mainstream-courting shift was one which didn’t come without its contentious detractors, of course. Even today, go browsing discussion forums and YouTube comments and you’ll find people, although not outright hostile, lamenting the loss of the rougher-edged sound that Bleed American could’ve had. A number of the album’s songs had origins in the Clarity sessions but didn’t make the album due to time and that means demos had been circulating online during the two-and-a-half-year gap.
Most notably, “Sweetness” even had its original demo version bundled onto international versions of Clarity and a compare-contrast of that and the polished re-recording which made Bleed is striking. Adkins’ vocals are significantly rougher and more obviously emotional that the multi-tracked and heavily-processed delivery of the album take, the production is lacking that early-00s crushed-tin compression beloved by pop records at the time, and the piano accentuation of the bridge is a detuned version of the vocal melody compared to the sharp staccato stabs which provide the additional charge into the climax of the re-record. Regardless of which version you prefer, and I think you can make more than justifiable cases for either, it’s undeniable that one version continued Clarity’s insistence that the listener meet its pop pleasures on its own terms whilst the other was content with being the one to cross the aisle and meet mainstream expectations. It slot in well with the TRL pop-punk/rock shift which was going on at the time.
As a result, it’s easy for some to ascribe the most cynical, snarky and bad faith readings onto Bleed American. Ultra-clean radio-ready production, uncomplicated three-chord pop songs barrelling along at bouncy tempos, Jim Adkins’ lyrics eschewing the first-person confessionals and snapshot-abstraction of Clarity in favour of second-person affirmations and an almost-relentless effort to find the positivity even in the breaking of toxic relationships. That’s not just catnip to emo-pop’s biggest detractors, that’s prime uncut Peruvian cocaine even before they reach “The Middle,” the ubiquitous unashamedly simple feel-good self-love anthem for a generation of teenaged misfits.
I, naturally, do not subscribe to such readings. Jimmy Eat World’s music to me has always read too genuine and sincere to ever lapse into that kind of cynicism. Writing big anthems, songs intentionally designed to resonate with as many people as possible with naked emotion but also refusing to play down the ambition in that desire, naturally leaves one open to mocking takes and defensiveness from a subset of listeners even when things go right. But the catharsis in anthemic, shiny poppy emo like the kind Jimmy go for with Bleed American ends up just as transcendent as the more insular, difficult somewhat-experimental music which gets all the buzzy acclaim. There’s an art in communicating big emotions on such a wide scale that most every listener can find something in when they listen to them. And, in its own way, it is daunting and daring to go that simple – Adkins was really concerned about bringing “Sweetness,” a song that’s anywhere from 50 – 70% “woah-oh”s, to the band initially because of that uncharacteristic extreme simplicity.
As fantastic as Clarity still remains, easily the band’s best album front-to-back, I think that embracing such widescreen directness was where Jimmy Eat World became Jimmy Eat World. This is obviously best embodied by the four singles, stone-cold classics the lot of them. The titular opener is indicative of the album’s more straightforward rock direction with just-crunchy enough guitars and relentlessly fun gang vocals on the chorus, a simple melody-following guitar solo which still rocks thanks to the choice of tone, and lyrics detailing Adkins depressive disaffection which were also general enough to reflect the mood of a suddenly-shifted teenaged generation in ways nobody could’ve predicted just two months later. “A Praise Chorus” utilises a call to arms for gig wallflowers to let themselves go and have fun as a metaphor for living life to the fullest, the song’s Gin Blossoms-y power pop and second half shout-outs to other songs that the band loved – from sources as disparate as Promise Ring to Madness to Mötley Crüe – continuing to break down barriers between emo’s underground and mainstream pop-rock radio. “Sweetness,” meanwhile, is “Sweetness;” I don’t think I need to say more than that.
But the second half is no slouch in the anthemic department, either. “If You Don’t, Don’t” is as sweet a break-up anthem as one could ask for and also where recurring guest backup vocalist Rachel Haden’s lighter feminine touch makes its strongest impact. “Cautioners” is the most Clarity-reminiscent song on the album, with a slightly more abstract rhythm and the most spacious mixing, as palm-muted triple-strummed chords anchor wedding-bell reminiscent ringing keys. Following that with the eleventh-hour bar-worthy singalong of “The Authority Song,” maybe the most immediate pop punk song on a record almost exclusively stuffed with immediate pop punk-y songs, frankly feels like flexing. Centrepiece “Hear You Me,” a tribute to Weezer fan-club presidents Mykel and Carli Allen who would offer upcoming scene bands like Jimmy places to stay when needed yet tragically died in a car crash in ‘97, is an absolutely heart-wrenching lighters-in-the-air ballad which manages to say so much about the aching pain of things unspoken to those you care about taken too soon with so little. (It may sound a little ready-made for a Dawson’s Creek soundtrack musically, but my inner queer teen-girl arse doesn’t consider that a bad thing.)
Then there’s “The Middle.” I’ve deliberately held off talking about it until very last because “The Middle” tends to dominate not just all Bleed American conversations, but all Jimmy Eat World conversations period. It is The Song when talking about both the band and this specific moment in the pop musical landscape for an entire generation of listeners. Two minutes and forty-six seconds, three major-key chords (D, A and G), two verses with the first repeated post-thirty-two bar solo, and one of the hookiest choruses ever to grace both the emo and pop punk airwaves. That’s it. Dead simple. Completely unassuming. Almost didn’t even make the album, to hear Adkins tell it, because it came together so easily. And yet you don’t need me to tell you it’s a masterpiece in pop songwriting. The drive of the guitars, the snap of that snare, the held beat on every instance of the chorus’s first and third lines before crashing back in, the “woo!” which kicks off said solo.
And, of course, those lyrics. Adkins wrote them in response to a teenaged fan who emailed him about how alone she felt at school, not being considered punk enough by the cool kids and shunned as a result, as an affirmation that one day this petty high school cliquey bullshit will end. “Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride/Everything, everything will be just fine.” It’s a song directed to a single person in a specific situation, yet one whose sentiments and pep-talk messaging are easy for anyone to relate to. One could read the lyrics as Adkins responding to the dissolution of Jimmy’s Capitol contract (he’s denied this in interviews), one could apply it to their own high school torment, one could apply it to a shitty break-up or an existential crisis… There’s a universal appeal and the fact that “The Middle” manages to do so without coming off as cloying, empty pandering is a miracle. It’s perhaps the decade’s ultimate feelgood healing jam.
It was also maybe the perfect song at the perfect time. Two months after Bleed American released, 9/11 happened. The nation entered a traumatic period of mourning and the entertainment industries scrambled to adjust. Unsurprisingly, both the album and single Bleed American had their names changed – the album became self-titled, the single to the chorus’s opening line “Salt Sweat Sugar” – in case of potential insensitivity almost immediately. But also, over the next few months, “The Middle” started crossing over from Modern Rock radio to full Top 40 success. Much of that success can likely be attributed to a very MTV-friendly video, depicting a lingerie party and an awkward guy who doesn’t want to strip to fit in (it’s super early-00s), but I’d argue there was probably a nation and accompanying generation who were actively looking for a song like “The Middle” to help them process their trauma and uncertainty. These, after all, were charged times where it seemed like the bottom could fall out at any second, America having been struck vulnerable in its heart on the world stage, and nobody really knew how to press onward for so long. Many Americans turned to art to help them process these emotions and the universal uplifting hope of a song like “The Middle” may have been precisely the comfort food they needed.
Whatever the reason, “The Middle” was a monster, hitting #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and set Jimmy Eat World up for life. As mentioned, the retitled Bleed American went platinum and new label DreamWorks Records took full advantage of having been gifted a massive pop record to push to the moon. Although they are yet to have another hit even in the same state as “The Middle,” let alone the same ballpark, the success of it and Bleed American enabled Jimmy Eat World to become Jimmy Eat World; highly-dependable emo institution who consistently release very-good to great albums of comforting tunes every three years and relentlessly tour a hit-laden live show, still going strong today nearly three decades in. (Seriously, they have so many more bangers than even serious fans might realise until they get lined up in a live set.) They bet on themselves and walked away with the big casino. Everything would be alright.
Callie Petch said their goodbyes, this is their sundown.