A Love Letter To Jimmy Eat World, The Most Heartfelt Emo Band To Ever Exist
Jimmy Eat World's career has spanned generations and genres, but their message has always stayed the same: You are not alone.
Picture this, if you will.
A teenager, trying to figure out the bigger picture and what they want out of life. They’re caught up in feelings that they’ve never had to confront head-on the way they have right here in this very moment. It’s confusing, it’s overwhelming and it truly feels as though there’s no end in sight.
It’s then that a song — simultaneously fresh and instantly familiar — emerges from the stereo speakers. “Hey!” the singer shouts. They want your attention — hell, they need it. “Don’t write yourself off yet,” they continue. “It’s only in your head you feel left out, or looked down on.”
Is it overly simplistic? Sure. Is it a bit corny? Of course. But in that very moment, when that kid needs it the most, does it speak to them? Without any doubt whatsoever.
For over 25 years, Jimmy Eat World have been a lifeline. They’re a band that has remained evergreen after decades of trends, phases and waves both in and out of rock music. They command as devoted a following now as they did when they first cracked the mainstream at the turn of the century. As one of their own songs would have you believe: It matters.
Ahead of the band’s return to Australia next month as a part of Download Festival 2020, we’re going to look at the surviving legacy of Jimmy Eat World, and how their cross-generational appeal has allowed them to remain titans of the genre.
Here It Goes
A little bit of context for those who might only know Jimmy Eat World as that band who sing ‘The Middle’: our heroes enter the world of emo during its second wave. The first wave emerged from the underground hardcore scene of the ’80s, the third wave was the fringe-flicking mall-friendly version you are mostly likely familiar, and the fourth wave is the one we’re currently in.
So, where does that leave the second wave? Essentially, during the ’90s the emo tag shifted sideways from its punk roots into something slightly rockier and more melodic — and, as a by-product, became inherently more accessible. Bands such as Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate progressed the introspective and heartfelt elements of the genre’s origins, moving into the realm of indie rock and shifting the vocal medium from screaming to singing (or “clean” vocals, if you’re into heavy music lingo).
Jimmy Eat World didn’t so much emerge from this scene as they did start their own chapter of it. They weren’t from a musical hotbed like New York (as Jawbreaker were), nor were they on the precipice of a cultural zeitgeist like Seattle (as Sunny Day were). Instead, Jimmy emerged from Mesa, a city in the south-east of Arizona where there was relatively little music of note period — let alone within the niche Jimmy were pursuing.
Needless to say, rock music was in a constant state of change in the ’90s — its trends and big-name acts would often shift completely within months. It says a lot, then, that Jimmy Eat World lived to tell the tale. Think about it: We’re not talking about the surviving legacy of, say, Better Than Ezra or The Verve Pipe now, are we? Both acts found way more success at the time than Jimmy, whose 1994 self-titled debut and 1996 follow-up Static Prevails didn’t even scrape the charts — and yet, you’re probably googling both as we speak.
It’s worth noting, too, that a lot of bands that ended up being flashes in the pan across rock music in the ’90s impacted with a shit-hot debut album. As fun as it is to listen to the exuberance and naïvete of Jimmy Eat World and the blossoming songwriting of Static Prevails, it’s clear that both albums are building up contextually to something greater.
Action Needs An Audience
If you’re a Jimmy Eat World fan now, there’s a strong chance you enter the picture being exposed via any of the band’s holy trinity of albums: 1999’s Clarity, 2001’s Bleed American and 2004’s Futures.
It’s this cycle of LPs over the course of a half-decade that transitioned Jimmy from a band with potential to one completely fulfilling it. Each album sharpens a different aspect of the band’s greater musical traits and assists in shaping the bigger picture insofar as their overall sound is concerned.
Clarity, for instance, remains one of the band’s most ambitious records in terms of arrangement — it’s topped and tailed by glockenspiel, has keyboards woven in and out of its big guitars and closes on the teenage symphony that is ‘Goodbye Sky Harbor’ — to this day, a strong contender for the best stand-alone Jimmy Eat World song.
Bleed American, for all intents and purposes, is a pop album — and, it must be stressed, a fantastic pop album at that. Some of the earworms offered up across its 11 tracks are truly indelible, and that’s outside of the obvious “everything, everything” and “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh,” too.
Though purists may bemoan the LP for being Jimmy’s quote-unquote “sellout” moment, it’s not for nothing that Bleed American remains the highest-selling album of the band’s career – meaning, ostensibly, that it connected with more people than anything else they’ve done.
As for Futures, released a decade after their eponymous debut, the band recalibrated and re-emerged as an alternative rock band with serious teeth. The tension of ‘Pain,’ the urgency of its title track and the crushing, relentless march of ‘Nothing Wrong’ are among the most vital and necessary cuts in the Jimmy Eat World canon. It’s darker, more direct and daring for a band in their position — just a few key reasons as to why it deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as the previous two LPs.
Jimmy Eat World have always made a point of challenging themselves to think outside the proverbial square.
Looking at this string of releases essentially answers everything that you ever wanted to know about Jimmy Eat World (but were too afraid to ask). It lays out in no uncertain terms why the band are worth caring about beyond their best-known tracks — there’s a longevity and an evergreen nature to the way these albums flow and how they operate as start-to-finish works in their own right.
They also showcase the band’s willingness to adapt and shift the focus of their songwriting, encompassing the kind of spectrum that not even bands with the loftiest of ambitions could hope to cover. Rather than rehashing ideas from a proven formula, Jimmy Eat World have always made a point of challenging themselves to think outside the proverbial square. Hell, even on the band’s most recent album Surviving this much stayed true — single “555” saw them take a shot at Imagine Dragons-style pop-rock, with an emphasis on synthesizers and production. For what it’s worth, they did a half-decent run at it too.
Of course, it would be remiss to not also bring up vocalist Jim Adkins’ heartfelt, earnest lyrics. As the centrepiece of each Jimmy Eat World album, Adkins knows all about mixing the autobiographical with the universal. The way he writes gives the impression that he is speaking directly from his own experience and his own life, and yet it’s often framed in a way that allows the listener to see themselves within it.
One of the key ways Adkins achieves this is by implementing a second-person narrative in tandem with a first-person perspective. Although still occasionally using “I,” “me” and “my” etc., the focus hones in on “you” and “yours.” Take ‘A Praise Chorus’ from Bleed American, for instance:
“Are you gonna live your life wondering/
Standing in the back, looking around?
Are you gonna waste your time thinking/
How you’ve grown up, or how you missed out?”
Almost as a successor to this, Adkins posits a similar question on ’23,’ the slow-burning closer to Futures:
“You’ll sit alone forever/
If you wait for the right time/
What are you hoping for?”
When you’re listening to Jimmy Eat World, it’s not a passive experience. You’re involved — and, most importantly, you’re not alone.
For Me This Is Heaven
If you’re looking for a visual representation of what Jimmy Eat World means as a whole to its listenership, seek out the video for ‘Work,’ the second single from Futures. Shot at Madison West High School in central Wisconsin, the clip hones in on the stories of real-life students — all uncertain of the future, all still figuring out exactly who they are and what they stand for. It’s the perfect complement to a career-best song by the band, but it also locks into the psyche of those that need Jimmy Eat World’s music the most.
It’s no secret the band have never been critical darlings — Pitchfork, as they are wont to do, promptly shat on Bleed American with a 3.5/10 review. “Are you a 15-year-old TRL addict looking for a step up from Sum 41 and American Hi-Fi?” it asks with dripping sarcasm, before describing the album’s songs as “so empty and sincere even you could have written it.”
With all due respect to Pitchfork: Fuck that noise. This shit was never about them. You look into the eyes of these 16 to 18-year-old kids, the Madison West class of 2005, and you’ll find the true passageway into understanding the resonance and power of Jimmy Eat World.
Now, picture this, if you will: A few old friends, with a bond that clearly stretches mile-long and decades in the rear-view, are standing around in an office building and performing to a room full of public radio volunteers. They’ve got acoustic instruments strapped on, and they’re playing through a song that they clearly know like the back of their hands. It’s one that’s so familiar, you’d forgive them for being sick of it by now — and yet, there’s a flicker in their eyes that makes its presence undeniable.
“Hey!” the singer shouts. They want your attention — hell, they need it. “Don’t write yourself off yet,” they continue. “It’s only in your head you feel left out, or looked down on.”
Is it overly simplistic? Sure. Is it a bit corny? Of course. But in that very moment, does it feel as meaningful as it did in 2001? Without any doubt whatsoever.
David James Young is a writer and podcaster who is flying to Brisbane next month to see Jimmy Eat World — then flying back to Sydney so he can see them again. Find out more at www.davidjamesyoung.com
Photo Credit: Oliver Halfin