Clarity Turns 20

Clarity Turns 20

There have been many ways to hear Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity: your favorite streaming service; the 2007 reissue that included the original demo of “Sweetness”; the 2xLP vinyl; the 10th anniversary tour. And I can say that I’ve probably blown a couple hundred dollars on all of them combined. But there’s only one way to truly experience it as intended, and according to Discogs, it’ll run you no more than five bucks: Go get the original CD version.

This one contains some information that needs to be accessible at all times. First, the Capitol or Nettwerk logo on the back, which reminds you of what Clarity was rather than what it is — Jimmy Eat World were arguably the first emo band on a major label when they released Static Prevails in 1996, and three years later, Capitol still had no idea what to do with them in a market dominated by teen-pop and nu-metal. Other than dropping them, that is. As a response, Jimmy Eat World made Bleed American “disgustingly catchy and straight ahead” on their own dime and the legend of Clarity is predicated on it being the album that killed their career and also sorta saved it. Also, remove the disc and the back cover is inscripted with two unrelated phrases — a crucial lyric from a song called “For Me This Is Heaven” and the record’s eyebrow-raising runtime — that become the instructions for listening to Clarity: “Can you still feel the butterflies? 64:22.” Over an hour of asking yourself, “Can I still feel the way I felt when I experienced my own personal heaven for the first time?”

This is where Jimmy Eat World self-actualized and this is the point where emo became pop. And tomorrow it turns 20 years old.

Granted, it took the rest of the music industry about two years to catch up. I’ve always thought that Clarity and Bleed American should switch names. Their 2001 blockbuster — their fourth or third album, depending on whether you count their out-of-print, self-titled debut from 1994 (I assume they do) — was a product of focus and precision, a band that took one last shot on itself and dared not miss. As far as pop-rock albums of the 2000s, not even Is This It can claim to be as filler-free. In the summer of 2001, I was working as a DJ at 91.9 WNRN in Charlottesville, a college/Clear Channel hybrid that had a set rotation with a decent amount of leeway to play pre-approved album cuts. If I remember correctly, at least nine out of 11 Bleed American tracks were suitable for airplay (“Hear You Me” might not have made the cut; sorry, “My Sundown”). Nothing else even came close except for actual Greatest Hits collections.

Clarity, on the other hand, was Jimmy Eat World exposing their hearts in a messy, visceral way, a more elemental and temperamental album foreshadowed by its four-quadrant album cover. For a band often synonymous with a full-disclosure form of pop, Jimmy Eat World have a unique way of recusing themselves from their music. Ben Gibbard was clearly working in fiction at times, but his vocals and writing style were so unmistakably his own that even if Ben Gibbard himself wasn’t the narrator of “Styrofoam Plates” or “Tiny Vessels,” you at least figured it was someone who kinda looked like him. And then you had songwriters like Conor Oberst, Pete Wentz, Chris Carrabba, and Jesse Lacey, photogenic dudes who spoke in detailed and diaristic language — part of the appeal was being able to see them as leading men in the movies of their music. Meanwhile, this would be the last time until Adkins’ mid-life reckoning on 2016’s Integrity Blues that he would write so explicitly from the perspective of “the guy in Jimmy Eat World.”

The autobiographical tone isn’t the only way in which Clarity stands apart. Most other Jimmy Eat World albums begin with a banger — “Big Casino,” “Bleed American,” “Futures,” “Thinking That’s All,” something that reasserts them as a rock band regardless of who’s producing or whether Taylor Swift is talking about them. Clarity starts out with “Table For Glasses,” a salvo in reverse. 1996’s Static Prevails was indicative of a time when emo was starting to dabble in electronics and expand beyond the “post-hardcore for arenas” template perfected on Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary. And with the help of producer/former Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino and a major label, Jimmy Eat World’s Capitol debut was the most texturally ambitious emo album ever made to that point. Yet there was still something tentative about it all — the synth squiggles and drum machines all felt like fringe on otherwise sturdy and hooky second-wave emo songs that could probably come out on a label like Tiny Engines in 2014 (I mean that as a high compliment).

On “Table For Glasses,” the strings and literal bells and whistles are the whole thing — a full-on orchestral version of Jimmy Eat World that sounds positively lavish, rendering Static Prevails and even the magnificent “Roller Queen” from their 1998 EP as mid-fi by comparison. I still can’t get over how much the bass booms once the drums come in. Adkins claims that its slowcore trudge and constantly interlocked harmonies were their homage to Low, which is something you can’t unhear once you know it. The lyrics initially read obtuse: “Sweep the dirty stairs, the ones I waited on.” It’s actually Adkins giving a play-by-play of an avant garde performance piece he saw working at an art-supply store, and the overwhelming sense that, as a rock guy, “we were infiltrating a secret society” — “It happens too fast/ To make sense of it/ Make it last.” It’s an ambitious leap out of emo (as it was known at the time) into full-on art-rock, a path that many of Jimmy Eat World’s peers would take into commercial and critical oblivion. And judging by the very next song, he’s as much intimidated by his brush with the avant-garde as he is inspired by it.

“You’re not bigger than this/ Not better/ Why can’t you learn?” he sings on “Lucky Denver Mint” — and this was supposed to be the breakout hit. At the behest of their A&R, Jimmy Eat World preempted their already-completed sophomore album with a teaser EP that included “Lucky Denver Mint,” two other songs that were intended for Clarity (“For Me This Is Heaven,” a demo of “Your New Aesthetic”) and two of their strongest deep cuts (“Softer,” “Roller Queen”). It was the first major success for the label that released it, a Florida indie partially commandeered by Less Than Jake’s drummer called Fueled By Ramen. Success for Fueled By Ramen in 1998 meant being able to afford office space in Tampa.

Infamously included on the Drew Barrymore rom-com vehicle Never Been Kissed, “Lucky Denver Mint” is a brilliant, inventive song, its crushed-out drum loops, U2-ish guitars, and stacked harmonies standing apart from fussy DreamWorks alt-pop or any number of MTV staples trying to catch up with electronica. It’s the only song Pitchfork actually had something nice to say about in their gone-but-definitely-not forgotten pan of Clarity.

But “Lucky Denver Mint” feels indicative of a band that maybe wasn’t ready for its close-up, as much as radio wasn’t ready for them. The chorus hits on a crisis of confidence that Adkins would revisit numerous times throughout Jimmy Eat World’s entire career — even after going platinum and playing Saturday Night Live, they would release albums with opening lines of “I can’t compete” and “I don’t stand a chance.” The thrumming, palm-muted riffs and spring-loaded chorus are hints of what they’d later weaponize on Bleed American, but imagine if the message on the “The Middle” was “go ahead and write yourself off.”

“Lucky Denver Mint” isn’t entirely hopeless. “A dollar underwater keeps on dreaming for me,” Adkins sings, because on the next two songs, the dream is essentially over when you’ve put your fate in other people’s hands (it was originally written about an unsuccessful night of gambling in Las Vegas). “Your New Aesthetic” is the only song here that doesn’t quite sit right with me 20 years later. Its outright aggression is certainly welcome — the horror-show dissonance after the chorus provided the song’s working title of “Skeleton.” It’s also possible that their cries to “take back the radio” are an homage to Refused’s “Liberation Frequency” from the previous year. But would they be asking us to turn off the radio if it was playing Jimmy Eat World as much as it did two years later? Its anti-corporate rock message makes it a timeless fan favorite, but the outward invective doesn’t resonate as much as Adkins screaming, “Better sing now while you can.”

Whatever longshot faith Adkins had on “Lucky Denver Mint” feels completely dashed on “Believe In What You Want,” which trades the bile of “Your New Aesthetic” for a more devastating resignation. While Jimmy Eat World have downplayed the idea of the band bottoming out and playing empty gigs after Clarity, they were objectively stuck between putting trust in “simple acts” (putting the flyers up all over town, gutting it out through every gig and photo shoot) while recognizing they were out to make someone else money. “What you ignore is priceless to me!” Adkins shouts, not to the fans they hadn’t made yet, but to the people bankrolling Clarity. “Capitol didn’t give a shit about us,” Adkins joked later on, and it cut both ways — Jimmy Eat World were free to make this spacey and experimental album while knowing Capitol wouldn’t give it the time of day.

Maybe Jimmy Eat World could have made an album entirely about their experience as a major-label band about to become Yesterday’s Big Thing — their Pack Up The Cats or what have you (sidenote: drummer Zach Lind’s Twitter is a reliably good source for dirt). And if you look at Clarity a certain way, it might already be that kind of album. Its structure is almost circular: It’s easy to hear the dying drum machine on “Goodbye Sky Harbor” segueing seamlessly into the opening drone of “Table For Glasses”; the first and last song are directly inspired by works of art, with “Goodbye Sky Harbor” taking chunks of dialogue from John Irving’s Prayer For Owen Meany that suggest Adkins’ experience as a touring musician are equally informed by humility and grandiosity (“I am but one small instrument” refers to Owen Meany’s conviction that he is a minor emissary of God); the two songs after “Table For Glasses” and before “Goodbye Sky Harbor” are most aggressive and cynical ones here, both sonically and lyrically. These are the sort of pet theories that emerge when you’ve listened to a record over a 100 times.

It’s the core of the album that presented Jimmy Eat World as a band without context in 1999 — yeah, they were born of emo, but they were a major-label band from Mesa, Arizona (not even Phoenix or Tempe or Tucson), whereas the Promise Ring, the Get Up Kids, Rainer Maria and such were products of burgeoning college towns or associated with esteemed indie labels. They’ve recently done co-headlining tours with Incubus and Third Eye Blind, because time has closed the distance between Jimmy Eat World and those alt-rock sex symbols who impolitely crowded “Lucky Denver Mint” out of KROQ spins. And while they shared a producer with Blink-182, Jimmy Eat World were nobody’s idea of pop-punk. They did, however, make an ill-fated pop-punk clip for “Lucky Denver Mint”; rather than doing the smart thing and using Never Been Kissed film footage to soundtrack the visual, Jimmy Eat World were given a goofy and vaguely problematic treatment where they get their ass kicked at various sports, including ultimate frisbee.

In Capitol’s view, Jimmy Eat World existed in a commercial dead zone when “Lucky Denver Mint” failed to hit. In retrospect, Clarity had discovered new territory, breaking ground on which the next decade of alternative rock would be built. This wasn’t the melodic emo of Jade Tree or Polyvinyl or really even Vagrant, but actual pop with its overwhelming, universal emotions and high-def production values, rendered with emo’s thematic and instrumental sensibilities. The undercurrent of self-doubt and sentimentality that always informed Adkins’ songwriting complicated “Just Watch The Fireworks” and “For Me This Is Heaven” beyond teen romance movies — these aren’t just songs about making out under starlit skies (though they are very much that), they’re reflections on what people are really trying to achieve through this connection.

“Here, you can be anything/ Anything that scares you/ I think that scares you,” Adkins sings at the beginning of “Just Watch The Fireworks,” and here’s the key: He might as well be talking to himself, diverting the idea of this as seduction or conquest, and admitting to being just as vulnerable and uncertain. “I’ve been here before/ But only by myself,” he sighs, the safety of which is echoed on a line that comes a few minutes later (“The mindless comfort grows/ When I’m alone with my great plans”). A similar conversation happens on “For Me This Is Heaven.” Adkins bashfully croons, “I’m careful but not sure how it goes/ you can lose yourself in your courage,” wishing upon a star — the one he’s waiting on, the one which may never come. And then the girl tells him a mantra that helps her get through things like this: “If I don’t let myself be happy now then when? If not now, when?”

It’s a situation that plays out constantly in TV shows and movies, tempting you to yell at the screen (“Just kiss already, they’re right in front of you!”) if you recognize your more naive, more insecure self. But would you really do it differently, or is experiencing that galvanic awkwardness an essential part of formulating a romantic ideal? And there’s the money line — “Can you still feel the butterflies?/ Can you still hear the last goodbyes?” — echoing the “if everything could be this real forever” sentiment of “Everlong,” the mushiest alt-rock song of the decade to that point (and seemingly a major influence on Bleed American as well as its follow-up, Futures, helmed by The Colour And The Shape producer Gil Norton).

I don’t know if I can properly replicate the jarring incongruity of hearing this kind of stuff expressed by men playing what otherwise scanned as alternative rock. Throughout the ’90s, male sensitivity in rock music equated with being dark, inextricably linked to depression and drug use, and put forth by guys who invariably scanned as sex symbols — or it was slick, guitar-toting dudes like Duncan Sheik or whatever who just seemed like the kind of guy who would try to steal your girlfriend if they had a chance.

The bulk of Clarity traded in subject matter that was verboten in emo or pop-punk; in the former, it tended to be more abstract or allusive, whereas in the latter, the googly-eyed songs were surrounded by boner jokes. It was post-teen, pre-adult, and when feeling particularly spicy, I’ll claim that Clarity isn’t on the emo continuum so much as one of the first documents of underdog pop. As proven by the post-“Show Me Love” career of Robyn and especially Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, there’s something inherently appealing about pop music being performed by people who seem fairly normal — especially if it’s performed by people who are appreciably older than their pop-star peers and have been fucked over by the music industry to a certain degree. That’s far more the story of Jimmy Eat World than the aforementioned, who at least had actual hits.

This shift from scrappy but shimmering punk to pop-gone-emo happens suddenly on Clarity, and like most profound life changes, Jimmy Eat World’s began in the aftermath of a massive hangover. The midsection of Clarity isn’t filled with their most-beloved songs, but they’re the ones that use “can you still feel the butterflies” as an operating principle after the strident first quarter. At least at the outset, the butterflies feel more like hummingbirds incessantly flapping in your stomach during “A Sunday,” where the strings replicate both the anxious detox and, during the bridge, the strange rush of euphoria that often comes at some point during a hangover that never seems to end — or maybe you’re just still drunk. Sequencing “Crush” immediately after honors the irresponsible and often irresistible desire to do it all over again the very next night.

Maybe this stuff existed in places I wasn’t looking, but no band is better at capturing the exhilarating possibilities of “I wanna fall in love tonight” than Jimmy Eat World. This is where their best music lives — the tremolo guitars on the bridge of “If You Don’t, Dont,” the bridge of “Polaris,” the bridge of “Firefight” where Adkins screams, “You could be anything, just be anything with me!” I’ll always remember a cold October night in Georgia I spent watching the Red Sox mount a comeback against the Yankees and listening to Futures — I didn’t have plans to go out, but that record is the glitter of city lights under the deep blue night sky, with just enough electricity to signal there’s something’s in the air. I took a call, went out to a bar to catch up with my friends and later that night, I met the woman who’d spend the next six years with me, but first we left behind the busy crowd in the fake yellow lights.

Look, I don’t know how I’d receive a record like Clarity if it came out now — I wake up at 6 AM most days, go to a job where I actually have to be physically and mentally present. I haven’t had a drink or a drug in about eight years. Most of my free time is spent writing 3,000-word essays about emo, like the one you’re reading now. “Going out” is seeing a concert that hopefully ends before 11 PM or getting dinner with my girlfriend so we can catch up on each other’s lives, not going out for going out’s sake. I’m an adult with a fairly stable life and some lingering anxieties about finances and career and when I need a Jimmy Eat World album to speak to those things, I’ll listen to Integrity Blues.

But if the cottage industry of album-anniversary pieces have proven anything, it’s that while writers usually claim a veneer of objectivity, so much of our relationship with an album is predicated on where you are in life when you first hear them. At least for me, it served as a soundtrack for the hyper-social existence of college where I basically spent every waking moment surrounded by my friends instead of, say, coworkers or family. And I could be paralytically hungover, then go out hours later, and then go drinking the night after because I did it the night before. If I’m being honest, I spent a lot of that time drunk and depressed and wondering where the hell my life was going, and it was also a full immersion in everything that I thought I was missing out on up to that point in my life.

I suppose I’ve taken way too long to just come out and say that Clarity is my favorite album of all time and that shouldn’t be confused for me saying it’s the best album of all time. There are records from a similar time in my youth that functionally changed the way I hear music and identified myself as a listener — my obsession with a burned CD of low-grade Kid A mp3s basically destroyed my social life in September 2000. But they’ve accumulated so much critical baggage and deep analysis that it’s impossible to have the same fuuuuuuck experience with them for the first time again. Deep down, I wonder whether writing about music professionally has made that kind of Stendhal’s Syndrome is inaccessible to me now — if I’d be one of those grumps talking about how Radiohead were totally ripping off Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Similarly, albums that spoke the most directly about being 22 and completely baffled by adult life (i.e., Lifted, The Ugly Organ, just about everything from Saddle Creek in those days, come to think of it) are so locked into that specific experience, they’re often hard to revisit as anything other than a “Facebook On This Day” sort of way; the only honest 20-year anniversary piece I could write about “Nothing Gets Crossed” out would just be a 1,000-word recount of me sitting at my temp job trying to fight off yet another Captain Morgan-induced hangover, hunched over a Lean Cuisine in the lunchroom at 10:58 AM because, y’know, fuck my life.

But having repeatedly lived out most of the things described in Clarity at various points in my life — at 21, at 29, at 35 — has only made it feel more true. Its brilliance isn’t in its sonic innovations or the understated wisdom of its lyrics, but its ability to be sensational in a literal sense — some might call it feels, but mostly, it’s their ability to replicate a body driven towards impulsive desires and illogical crushes on instinct rather than intellect. I recall a Jimmy Eat World podcast that spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time dissecting the syncopation of Lind’s drumming, and Clarity is indeed a record about propulsion — “Ten” is mostly drone under the stumbling and determined drum track, Adkins “Going nowhere in the fake yellow light,” inspiring one of Jimmy Eat World’s most comprehensive tab archive.

There’s another line about leaving behind the busy crowds, “Living trapped inside the chase,” immediately conjuring any number of drunken nights where people start to lose track of their friends. The wildly stereo-panned drum machine outro of “Lucky Denver Mint” chases its dreams until the wheels fall off, “12.23.95” is trapped in a hallucinogenic freeze frame, a guy who’s too high to remember the actual day of Christmas; “You’re smaller, getting smaller but I still see you,” are the final words on an album about trying to hold onto someone that matters even if everything else is falling apart. “Goodbye Sky Harbor” ends with 11 minutes of layered loops that play out like Four Tet going full-on emo, holding space for me and so many others to…just feel the fucking butterflies.

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