Monday, November 17, 2014

In Defense Of: Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World

This In Defense Of was contributed by Jamie Frey, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter and freelance music journalist who needs this now more than he ever did.

It’s possible that some of you are cringing at the very title of this piece, and I think that the other half of you are feeling a warmth of youthful “sweetness” in your loins just at the mention of the record. I also must preface this defense — as many of you may be thinking or projecting upon me — with this disclaimer: I did not grow up as a devotee of American pop-punk or emo. I never went to the Vans Warped Tour. I was not a teenage obsessive of Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate, Alkaline Trio, or even Fugazi. I was not seeking out obscure record labels with the punkest punk or the most emotional emo or the indiest indie. I’m not even that familiar with Jimmy Eat World’s earlier three albums, which many will argue are more pure and good than this big hit-filled crossover record. But that is not what I am writing about; I am writing about the populist rock ‘n’ roll that you heard on the radio. I’m talking about Bleed American (or the self-titled Jimmy Eat World for post-9/11 weiners). I’m talking about songs that make young people want to hold hands and kiss.

This record came out in July 2001, when I was fifteen years old, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I was in the midst of my first teenage dream object of love (spoiler: we never got together, and she fucked me over), and that summer, my friend Abe and I would write our first real song with chords and lyrics in summer camp, my little sister would be born, and a few months later I would start my first-ever band. At fifteen, I was absolutely in love with rock ‘n’ roll, and my tastes were largely informed by the radio. New York’s K-ROCK station in its “alternative” format was an absolute gem that will never be re-created. It was flexible enough that you might hear Nine Inch Nails, Dave Matthews Band, Pantera, Busta Rhymes, and No Doubt in the same half-hour. I used to spend hours a day with the radio station, and it had already introduced me to some of the most important music of my life, from Black Sabbath and The Ramones to Jane’s Addiction and Weezer. There was weird music like Butthole Surfers and King Missile, angsty Billy Corgan and Marilyn Manson, and love songs that would inflate the imagination of possibilities to my nerdy virginal self like “Shimmer” by Fuel and “Slide” by Goo Goo Dolls — and, of course, the seminal hit of my generation, “Everlong” by Foo Fighters (acoustic version from Howard Stern, anyone?). Despite warnings from Kurt Cobain and Elvis Costello, corporate rock did not suck, and I felt I had better listen to the radio.

I discovered Jimmy Eat World on the radio, and by the time I saw the classic video for “The Middle” — which is a perfect power-pop song, arguably our generation’s “I Want You To Want Me” — on MTV with the underwear house party, I was sold. The song is a crisp, all-hook pat on the shoulder for geeks all over America. I must have gone to Coconuts (later FYE, now I think a Sprint store) on West 8th and 6th Ave and bought the CD that day. It may have been timing, but this was the perfect driving pop-rock to fill my brain with grandiose melodies, chugging guitars, and plinking piano.

The title track that starts the album is a kind of red herring for the rest of the record, a driving political track about America that would seal the album’s historical fate. I only learned what “Speyside” is just now (a type of Scotch), and I kind of thought this song was about skateboarding the first hundred times I heard it. It turned out to be part of an early wave of angry political songs about the Bush administration. But basically, this song rocks and starts off an album that would become mushier and mushier the more it went on.

What follows, “A Praise Chorus”, is a song that could speak to the lovelorn dork so strongly, it is basically the soundtrack to our generation’s great unwritten fictional teen movie: a prom scene where our hero has to build up the courage to ask the girl to dance, complex feelings that would now be accurately summed up as “Y-O-L-O” and “F-O-M-O” by contemporary young people. “All I need is just to hear a song I know” before making a courage choice to dance, to live. The refrain of “Crimson and Clover” (sung by Davey from The Promise Ring, again not my area) will always remind me of Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper sharing their first slow dance on The Wonder Years. [Ed.'s note: I was always a sucker for this earlier demo version without the Crimson and Clover bridge. Annnnd, BREAK.] The passage that follows quoting Madness, They Might Be Giants, Motley Crüe — basically a teenager’s mixtape — will echo in my brain forever. This is the type of naïveté and yes, sweetness, that would rarely be achieved again in the age of irony that would follow. I would write my best song for my high school band, The Jesus Fish Evolution, very much in this template, from the actual position of waiting in the wings for that special first kiss from some unattainable girl.

And that became literal: I can remember playing the third single, the aforementioned “Sweetness”, in my head as I walked through Prospect Park after kissing the girl I liked that year for the first time. We had to climb a fence to get into another area of the park. I went first and then helped her over and felt that for the first time her body was actually in my arms. I was inches away, all I had to do was not be a wimp like I always did, like the “Praise Chorus” protagonist. I remember finally doing it, feeling my face in her face — finally — after thinking about it all day every day for months, and I remember the song: “I was spinning free/Woah, oh, oh, oh, oh/With a little sweet and simple numbing me” all up in my brain, from the making out to walking her back to her house, to my house, till god knows when the thrill was over. I don’t think we ever made it much past that make out, we’d stay friends and she might get married to a different guy someday. I’ll never lose that moment, though, as it is stuck in three minutes and forty-one seconds of audio. I can listen to Charles Mingus or Captain Beefheart or Brian Eno or Neu! all day long and enjoy the shit out of it, but it will never hold that kind of memory in that way. Maybe that’s just nostalgia, not a real defense, but it’s true. It might be Taylor Swift or Arcade Fire in the kid’s head nowadays, but we cannot and should not ignore the importance of these teenage anthems.

Now let’s talk about the non-single album tracks that you may never have heard or have not heard in over ten years. I’ll admit that “Get It Faster”, while not uncatchy, is the turd in this otherwise transcendent group of tunes. Most of the punk chugging on this album is left to the singles, and the deep cuts are mature, ballad-y heartbreakers with a forward-thinking pop aesthetic. Where the Strokes and White Stripes would soon popularize throwback minimalism, Jimmy Eat World was looking toward the modern pop song. “Your House” is a near-soulful turn for a bunch of white guys in collared shirts from the absolutely most cracker circuit in America, as is “Hear You Me”, which has a “With Or Without You” kind of melancholic beauty to it. Many of the tracks feature amazing backing vocals from Rachel Haden, of The Rentals and That Dog, and she really brings out the beauty of these vulnerable songs.

I think the best song on the record might be “If You Don’t, Don’t” which has a uptempo pop-punk chug, but almost feels like The Postal Service with its swirling synths and layered vocals. Jim Adkins really sings his heart out like one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great sensitive wimps, not unlike some of Robert Smith’s best moments, taking his moment of greatness. It definitely could have been the fifth single and another hit — god, remember when rock bands could have a multitude of radio singles? Jeez. Like the middle section of “A Praise Chorus” suggested earlier, the later cut “The Authority Song” is a song about songs, stealing a title and groove from John Cougar Mellencamp, and in one line, describing what it’s like to be a nerdy indie kid in a mainstream world: “The DJ never has it/JMC (Jesus and Mary Chain) Automatic.” Picking up from the wallflower in Authority Song, he’s staring at the jukebox trying to find the right tune to ask the girl to dance, looking to pop music as a source of bravery.

We live in a more cynical time than the moment that this album captures, but we’ve also lost rock ‘n’ roll in our populist scape. There is no radio for rock music, no one sells records anymore, and the likelihood of a four-chord guitar song like “The Middle” or “Sweetness” infecting young people’s ears with a little encouragement or confidence, the guts to ask someone to dance, is not likely. All music is available on the Internet, and you might find Brian Eno or Neu! by freshman year of high school; that innocence, that sweetness, might just be gone with the times.

And, of course, less than two months after the albums release, 9/11 happened. Bleed American became Jimmy Eat World as not to offend. Tracks from the Rage Against The Machine and Public Enemy catalogs were put into unlikely company with “Imagine” and “Benny and The Jets” as songs you couldn’t play on the radio. My beloved K-ROCK alternative radio soon switched formats to “Active Rock”, which meant a lot of angry white men like Staind, Disturbed, Three Doors Down, and Papa Roach. After the last gasp of the garage rock revival, rock music would be left to its conservative, major label, purportedly “Middle America” devices, leaving Nickelback and Kid Rock as the only acts still with radio hits. I would discover Guided By Voices and Sonic Youth and lose track of the rest of Jimmy Eat World’s albums. And maybe I would become more cynical for all these changes; however, I cannot help but occasionally dust this album off, not just for nostalgia but for the songs. These are great, sincere tunes aimed straight at the heart of youthful America. These songs of heartbreak and growing up prove, no matter how old or jaded I get, that sometimes I still need a little sweet and simple numbing me.

— Jamie Frey

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