Monday, June 2, 2014

In Defense Of: Third Eye Blind

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Lisa Uhlman, a legal journalist, bowler, and ping pong player who recently left Brooklyn to live the dream in suburban Maryland.

I’m not an expert on much. (Baseball: kind of. My job: yes. Telling hawks apart from buzzards: yo, I’ve got expertise to spare.) But now that the last 22-plus hours of music I’ve listened to has been Third Eye Blind (I stopped keeping track after about 22 hours probably about 22 hours ago), I guess I’m an expert on that now, too.

As such, I’ve got something important to show you.

Life as I now know it began about a week ago, when my (rhetorical, I thought) question, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Square Zeros did a defense of Third Eye Blind?” morphed, in a series of slow-motion cognitive smacks to the face (“Does Third Eye Blind even need defending?” Whoa. “How has no one thought to defend them yet?” Whoa. “Wow, so honored.” Wow.), into the realization that, to defend Third Eye Blind, I’d have to listen to a shitload of Third Eye Blind.

Hell YES I would.

After staggering in this way through some strange stages-of-grief exercise that lasts just thirty seconds and culminates in a cake congratulating you on joining a Third Eye Blind cult (and out of the cake jumps more Third Eye Blind), I eagerly queued up the band’s self-titled debut, diving into “Losing a Whole Year” and vowing ne’er to come up for air until “God of Wine” had brought down the house (me: I was the house). Repeat fifty times.

(Remember “God of Wine”? Neither did I. Hint: It’s depressing as shit. Welcome back to Third Eye Blind!)

When I listen to this album, I’m transported back to 1997: it’s summertime, I have a truly debilitating crush on Tony (no relation to 3eb’s Stephan) Jenkins, and life is somehow simple but also insanely weird because I’m a horrible awkward teenager. But wait: it gets worse! When I was 15, I kind of sucked. I had no taste, least of all taste in music. To this day, I still get quiet at that moment in conversations when people start bragging about how young they were when they first started to care about music. I listened to music, sure. But I didn’t really care about it, yet.
Enter into this (oddly egocentric for a story about a band I’m not a member of) scene the radio’s completely losing its shit over “Semi-Charmed Life”: behold, my first step toward breaking free of servitude to the genre that for our purposes I’ll call “Mariah Carey.” Stephan (no relation to football team hunk Tony) Jenkins’ aggressively poppy “doot-doot-DOOT, doot-doo-DOOT-doot” opening was a killer gimmick that perfectly set up the rest of the song, which was downright fantastic: tight, crisp and fresh, even to a layperson like ol’ Mariah Carey-loving me. It floored me. It felt good.

Also, it talked about sex and drugs, and that was really impressive to me, because I was 15.

Progress: Today I have a middlin’-borderin’-on-pride-inducin’ knowledge of music, and, thanks in part to the sea change “Semi-Charmed Life”, Third Eye Blind, and Third Eye Blind inspired in me then, I now listen to bands I’m more or less not even ashamed to list on my dating profile.

In short: If I know the first thing about music today, it’s in part thanks to that first single, my debt to which I readily acknowledge (the long version, with that kicky “those little red panties, they pass the test” section whose sometime eradication from radio edits invariably makes the more-than-casual Third Eye Blind fan sigh).

But listen, I could go on all day about “Semi-Charmed Life” — 3eb has an entire catalog to celebrate.

I celebrate songs like Third Eye Blind bottom-half MVP “The Background”: a sleepy, sad dreamfest with hauntingly regretful lyrics, all moseying their way toward that epiphanic crescendo beginning at 3:01. Time was, driving at night on some Pennsylvania highway, I’d wait for that crucial moment to hit and then, in coincidence with the crisis, slam on the gas for one brief, exhilarating moment. Windows down; volume up. I’m listening now, remembering those nights, and I feel pretty fucking good.

Third Eye Blind is positively brimming with that brand of feel-bad song that makes you feel pretty fucking good. Looking back, it’s kind of shocking how much more there is to this workhorse than “just” “Semi-Charmed Life.” Of the album’s fourteen songs, my (totally objective, because I’m a journalist) count produces no fewer than nine (nine!) that are hands-down solid tracks. Third Eye Blind spawned five singles. It bats a thousand through the sixth spot in the lineup, and while “Losing a Whole Year,” “Narcolepsy” and “Jumper” maybe don’t have the same oomph as, say, the seminal, resonating (I fight the urge to sneak in “classic”) “How’s It Going to Be,” they at best have gracefully survived the late 90s and early 00s; at the very least, they were emblematic pop radio hits in their day.

I engaged in a little colloquy with some diehard Third Eye Blind fans as I went about writing this piece, and I got some pushback about the songs I’d remembered as being less than killer. More than acting as a reminder that people really connected to this album in a surprisingly lasting way, their input made me think a little harder about those tracks. When you put the album on and “Losing a Whole Year” swoops in, it really sets the tone for what’s about to happen: Jenkins shouting “I remember you and me used to spend/the whole goddamn day in bed” sets you up for the post-breakup mixture of regret and blame that will permeate the album, while the melodies and the loud sound pull you in. Fast, now, but they’ll soon give way to the album’s well-placed slow tracks.

Narcolepsy” gives you another taste of Jenkins the screamer, someone who shows up now and then in this album and its followers. While to me it might be the closest this album feels to not being entirely sure what it wants to be, it’s got some good stuff that I seem to always forget about until I’m listening to it. You believe Jenkins when he says, “I read dead Russian authors, volumes at a time/I write everything down except what’s on my mind.” There’s some tortured soul from a nineteenth-century Russian novel that comes out in these songs, certainly, and you get a glimpse of that early on.

After “Semi-Charmed Life” come “Jumper” and “Graduate”, radio hits that explored, respectively, talking someone off a ledge and overcoming the low point in one’s life. Sometimes good, heavy things come in poppy packages. They’re not my favorites on this album, but they are brave and accessible nods to struggles the musicians and their friends faced, in the vein of a rock PSA. They’re good, loadbearing songs that give the album breathing room to let its flattening, bowl-you-over moments stretch their legs and do their work.

Even the weaker tracks — bobbing my head to “Thanks a Lot”, I wonder if “weak” is too strong a word — that fill out the bottom of the order (“London”? Ehh. “Burning Man” and “I Want You”? I mean, if you put them in front of me, I’m not going to send them back) still make me struggle to find an adjective more apt than “solid,” a word to which I tellingly seek recourse again and again in describing/explaining/haranguing people about this album. The more I listen to “Good For You”, for instance — that chorus just kills me — the more I think this album could still be a hit if it came out today. The technical execution is evident, but that’s no surprise for a pop/rock album that went six times platinum. For me, the lyrics are largely what make this album bigger than, or at least as big as, its first hit single. They’re marked by a deeply introspective melancholy and a longing for something irrevocably lost; they range from being almost universally accessible to smacking of an exceptionally personal poignancy that’s like boring deep into Jenkins’ bitter, angst-addled, totally relatable soul.

Finally, it’s his vocals — the high-registered theatricality, that sort-of lisp and judiciously employed falsetto, the wavering energy ever threatening to devolve into a dull-edged, frustrated petulance — that round out what I think makes this radio band worth going back to fifteen years after it peaked.

Jesus, and I haven’t even gotten to “Motorcycle Drive By”.

What gets me is how, the deeper I dig into Third Eye Blind, the more I find myself returning to my initial question: “Does this band really need defending?” The short answer is: Yes, I guess, but I’m not sure why. It’s a good band, dammit. A solid band.

But maybe you won’t take my word for it. (Could I blame you? After all, it took the advent of a band like Third Eye Blind for me to start appreciating music through a critical lens.) In that case, just give Third Eye Blind another listen. Dig in and absorb those — admit it! — legitimately enjoyable, spirited, energizing tunes — the kind that stick to your gut. Like eating the mashed potatoes your mom used to make, or a whole thing of ice cream: probably bad for you, but, oh, so good.

Sometimes you have to feel a little bad to feel pretty fucking good. So go ahead: Be transported. Join the cult! Come for the nostalgia if you must, but stay when you realize there’s more to this sound than nostalgia or, you fey Brooklyn jerks, irony. Am I too deep down this Third Eye Blind rabbit hole for my own good? Obviously. (Seriously, I’m listening to demos at this point.) But — and bear with me here — I’m pretty sure this album’s sound might be something close to (ugh, six rewrites and this is still here): the soft dive of oblivion.

(Obli-vi-o-on.)

Then, when you’re done: Fuck it, put on the follow-up, Blue. I’m listening now, and, did you remember, this album (which only went something lame, like double platinum) has some deliciously wonderful things, like the pop-song epitome “Ten Days Late”, the flat-out wonderful “Wounded” (repeat fifty times) and, for chrissake, “Slow Motion,” on it? Not to mention my favorite Third Eye Blind song of all time, “Deep Inside of You”.

Yeah, that’s right, haters: “Deep Inside of You” is my favorite Third Eye Blind song.

Fuck it.

It’s a solid track.

— Lisa Uhlman

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Derek Hawkins, In Defense Of: You Get What You Give by The New Radicals 
Rachel Brown, In Defense Of: Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette 

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