Many now consider Jimmy Eat World’s third album a classic, but it didn’t fare so well upon its release in February 1999. Clarity was a record built on complex arrangements that showcased how the Arizona band had leveled up since 1996’s Static Prevails. Vocalist-guitarist Jim Adkins, drummer Zach Lind, guitarist Tom Linton, and bassist Rick Burch proved that they were destined for bigger stages, especially with tracks like the 16-minute emo-slowcore epic “Goodbye Sky Harbor” and the concise pop-rocker “Lucky Denver Mint,” which helped the band broaden its audience significantly when it appeared on the Never Been Kissed soundtrack. Still, Capitol Records deemed the album a commercial failure, and the label had mutually parted ways with Jimmy Eat World within months after its release.
This could have marked the finish line for a ’90s emo band. Jimmy Eat World could have become a relic of the genre’s past — respected for their incredible songs, but far from the presence they are today. Instead, Adkins, Lind, Linton, and Burch rallied together and decided that this would be far from the end of their band. They would make it work. There was still plenty of material left over from the Clarity sessions, but it went unused because it was recorded too late to be included on the album. Jimmy Eat World applied a polished sheen to those songs plus a few new additions, priming them for an inevitable commercial breakthrough.
Mark Trombino, who also worked on Static Prevails and Clarity, reprised his role as producer, and he was so confident in these songs’ assured success that he worked for free, certain that he would be reimbursed later. The band self-financed the new album and worked day jobs to pay for it. Jimmy Eat World signed with DreamWorks shortly before the record’s release, but they made it without a label’s support, devoting themselves fully to the recording, songwriting, and production, and it absolutely shows.
Bleed American, which turns 20 years old tomorrow, captures Jimmy Eat World at their cultural apotheosis. Released at a time when infectious riffs and pop-punk “whoa-ohs” reigned supreme, the album is an artifact of its era that remains as indelible as ever two decades later. Bleed American would be certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America a little more than a year after release, cementing its ubiquity with omnipresent singles like the title track, “Sweetness,” “A Praise Chorus,” and, of course, “The Middle.”
Despite how immensely successful Bleed American is, its story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its well-chronicled misfortune. Shortly after the events of 9/11 transpired, Jimmy Eat World swiftly decided to change the name of the album, making it self-titled until Geffen re-released the deluxe edition in 2008 and reinstated the Bleed American name. The title track was also the lead single, so the band was forced to change it to “Salt Sweat Sugar” to circumvent its inclusion on the 2001 Clear Channel memorandum, a list of songs that program directors at Clear Channel (now iHeartRadio) considered inappropriate for airplay. It included Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” Foo Fighters’ “Learn To Fly,” every single Rage Against the Machine song, and many others. Jimmy Eat World didn’t want to share that fate, especially because they were just breaking into the zeitgeist.
With this record, Jimmy Eat World centered on sharp, concise songwriting that catapulted them to unprecedented heights. Where Clarity focused on lush backdrops and gorgeous timbres, Bleed American embraced biting, aggressive pop-punk, particularly on songs like the title track and “Get It Faster.” It’s much more straightforward but never to a fault. Adkins himself has commented on the record’s simplicity, particularly with the group’s biggest hit yet, “The Middle.” “On our new stuff, rather than challenging ourselves [by] getting real experimental, we kind of went in the other direction, challenging ourselves by getting very simple,” he explained in 2002. But this didn’t preclude some self-doubt regarding the call-and-response vocalizations in “Sweetness”; he almost never showed the song to his bandmates in the lead-up to recording. Despite (or maybe owing to) lyrics that consist of so many “whoa-ohs,” its catchiness is indisputable, and it became one of Jimmy Eat World’s most popular songs.
The songs on Bleed American are often personal, but they aren’t always autobiographical. Adkins wrote “The Middle” — a #1 hit at alternative radio that went all the way to #5 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 — for a fan who wrote to them saying that she felt like an outcast. Her friends derided her for not being “punk enough,” which Adkins found contradictory and shallow. As a tribute, he spoke directly to her in the song’s instantly recognizable chorus: “It just takes some time/ Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride.” It transitions into an equally recognizable shredder of a guitar solo, an homage to Guided By Voices’ Doug Gillard. This isn’t the only instance of the band paying respect to their influences, though.
The penultimate track, “The Authority Song,” derives its title from the John Cougar Mellencamp song of the same name, as Adkins uses his last quarter “to see what the jukebox knows” and plays Mellencamp’s tune. The song also namechecks the Jesus And Mary Chain’s third record, Automatic and the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.” But these references are scarcely anything compared to the bevy of allusions that permeate “A Praise Chorus.” A tribute to Jimmy Eat World’s influences, replete with lyrics from myriad other songs scattered throughout the bridge, the song culminates with the Promise Ring’s Davey Von Bohlen singing Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson And Clover” while Adkins references Von Bohlen’s own “Why Did We Ever Meet.”
Although Jimmy Eat World mostly adhere to seething pop-punk on Bleed American, the record isn’t completely devoid of tenderness. “Hear You Me” is a dazzling 6/8 ballad that serves as the album’s centerpiece. Just as “The Middle” was written for an ostracized fan, Adkins wrote “Hear You Me” for two sisters who were avid fans of the band. They died in a car accident on their way to a Weezer concert in 1997, and they frequently used the phrase “hear you me” when they talked on online forums. Jimmy Eat World decided to name the song after their colloquialism.
There’s also the stunning closer, “My Sundown,” which remains one of the most gorgeous songs the group has ever released. When Adkins whispers “I could be so much more than this/ No one cares” in the album’s final moments, he’s oblivious to how prescient of a statement this is. Capitol may have just dropped his band, but they would soon release the biggest album of their career. “My Sundown” plays like a precursor to Chase This Light‘s rampantly hopeful “Big Casino,” where Adkins talks of winning the lottery and “[playing] my little part in something big.” The former track is far more dejected and uncertain, which makes it the perfect finale for the last album Jimmy Eat World would release before rock stardom. The world would care quite a bit about this band soon; it just takes some time.