Thursday, January 24, 2013

Album Review: "Clarity" by Jimmy Eat World

In December of 1998, I was a semester into my first year of graduate school.  I'd chosen to go to grad school at the same place I'd gone to undergrad, although saying that I made a decision is a bit of a stretch.  I honestly had no idea what I was going to do with myself after I graduated, but I knew that, during my senior year, I felt like I was actually starting to learn something.

I applied to a few different school, but Ohio University not only took me, they offered me an opportunity to teach for money, not to mention a tuition waiver.  Plus, I didn't have to move very far and I actually had some friends there already.  Done and done.

My first year of grad school was something of a disaster, perhaps one of the darker years of my life if I really look at it objectively.  I half assed both my studies and my teaching responsibilities because I still wanted to live life like an undergrad.  I spent my time focusing on a half way decent band made up of people who had, a year earlier, been in other bands, so in my head we were a super band (in my head I can also sing).

I was also stuck -- by my own choosing -- in a chasm of a relationship, with one side being an actual real relationship that was ultimately impossible for any number of reasons, and the other side being a clean break and moving on with my life.  I thrived on things that made me feel bad about myself, particularly things I was almost solely responsible for.

I'm guessing that I bought the Jimmy Eat World EP released by Fueled by Ramen sometime after the band I was in returned from a disastrous tour in which we ultimately only managed to play four shows.  I was in the right frame of mind for something "emo," as the kids had started calling it a few years earlier.

The first two tracks or, to be more specific, the only two songs on side 1 (I think I actually still have the record around here somewhere, even though I've gone mostly digital these days) were from JEW's upcoming third album, Clarity.  They were nice enough and had me interested in what to expect from the full length.

It was the B side that got the most time under the needle.  All three songs have since been released, I believe, in compilation form or as addition to re-mastered albums or some such.  But for years after the release of this record, you could only get three songs here.

The first was "Your New Aesthetic (Demo Version)" which, when I eventually heard the final version of this song, is absolutely insane.  The song is haunting and simple and delicate and nothing at all like the song of the same name that made it on to Clarity.

The next song was my favorite.  I liked it so much that I more or less ripped it off for the aforementioned band I was in.  "Softer" had a nice rhythm, but with dark undertones and angular guitars, the kind that don't really come through on CDs.

The last song, "Roller Queen," was atmospheric and lovely and, I think, pretty clearly created by one person, not an entire band, which was fantastic fodder for my overactive imagination (as if I had the chops to ever record a song by myself).

The EP was enough to whet my appetite, and while I don't remember it, I'm willing to bet that I bought Clarity when it was released in February of 1999.

Jimmy Eat World has been considered an "emo" band for most of their career, although they started off with a pretty straightforward pop punk sound.  Appropriately enough, that was the direction that "emo" had moved toward as the decade was coming to an end.  While initially made of of musicians baring their souls on stage, contemporary "emo" had become pop songs about girls.  By the time Clarity was released, "emo" was probably on its fourth generation, when it probably should have ended after its second (when Sunny Day Real Estate broke up the first time).

You won't hear any argument from me if people consider Clarity to be an "emo" record.  It's not an unreasonable label.  At the time, I was more than happy to call it that, because there was a darkness to it that you couldn't find on the latest Promise Ring or Get-up Kids release.

The music charts in 1999 were dominated by boy bands and divas, happy, shallow party music that seemed to be influencing even the independent label bands.

Clarity opens with "Table For Glasses," a song filled with enough vocal harmonies that it could, in fact, have been performed by a boy band.  It was far more dynamic than anything that could be found on the radio, though.  It was also something of a rallying cry for the album; as pretty as it is, there's definite sadness to "Table For Glasses," not to mention a wide variety of instruments.  When the chorus kicks in that final time, we're treated to the giant, orchestrated sound that would show up elsewhere on the album.

Sad was good; I could do sad.

I could go through the album track by track, but that would probably be boring for anyone but me.  There were a few songs that stood out to me almost immediately.

"Your New Aesthetic" took me by surprise.  I'd heard the demo version on the JEW EP, but this was nothing like it.  The guitars were so heavy that this song actually sounded kind of angry, which was definitely something I could get behind.  I also immediately latched on to how this song built, and how it did it in such a simple way.

"Crush" was the kind of pop punk "emo" that I could never write and generally didn't enjoy, but this one had some rock behind it.  This track was something that could have fit on Jimmy Eat World's previous album, which I enjoyed.  This song works even better when paired with the song after it, "12.23.95," yet another version of a previously released song ("Christmas Card").

There is a stretch through song 8-10 of what I call middle of the road Jimmy Eat World songs.  This is the style that would ultimately come to define the band -- clean guitars, medium tempos, earnest lyrics, angsty vocals, some distortion and harmonies for the chorus.  Individually, these songs are fine, but stretched out in a row like this they kind of make me glaze over.

If that stretch of songs was kind of boring for me, the album is rescued by the last two songs, "Clarity" and "Goodbye Sky Harbor," two of my favorite Jimmy Eat World songs ever.  "Clarity" is something of a blueprint song for Jimmy Eat World.  Their heaviest songs on later albums would have the same basic guitar pattern (see: "Bleed American" and "Nothingwrong").

Sure, the really long, a little obnoxious, ending to "Goodbye Sky Harbor" made it hard to put on mix CDs without hunting down an MP3 splitter, but the song is just so damn good.  It has that primal guitar rhythm that follows a pretty rocking riff and the chorus is quietly great the way the verse is loudly great.  They're not inventing the wheel here or anything, but they're producing a really great one.

From what I understand, Clarity didn't do very well when it was released, and its poor sale performance led to Jimmy Eat World being dropped by Capitol Records.  Clarity eventually became something of a cult hit.  I would imagine it became something of a deciding factor in whether or not people were "true" Jimmy Eat World fans once the band got big.  If you bought Clarity when it came out, then you weren't a bandwagon fan; you were old school.

I haven't really paid attention to any of that.  I'm a fan of the band, but not so much that I'm reading every article about them or following every trend.  And as much as I enjoyed Bleed American and more or less enjoyed the albums after that, Clarity remains, in my mind, the best album Jimmy Eat World has ever produced.