Saturday, March 26, 2016
Jimmy Eat World - Futures (10-Year Retrospective)
“Has it really been 10 years?”
That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot this fall, because the autumn of 2004 was one of the most important seasons of my life. It was my most paramount musically formative stage. I’d always loved music, even leading up to that season: listening to the radio, making cassette tape copies of my brother’s CDs, playing the piano, jamming the few albums I owned repeatedly in the afternoons after school, downloading tracks off Limewire and making mix CDs. But I never fully understood the impact a song or album could have on my life until the fall of 2004. Until Futures.
The first track I heard from this record was “Kill,” and it was like getting struck by lightning. I loved everything about it. I loved the emotion in Jim Adkins’ voice. I loved the way the guitars just seemed to layer and build to infinity. I loved how the lyrics never repeated themselves, even in the chorus. And I loved how the words seemed to perfectly capture what I was feeling. “I can’t help it, baby, this is who I am/Sorry, but I can’t just go turn off how I feel,” Adkins sang in the final chorus. It was like someone was unlocking my brain and setting its contents to words and music, and it felt more enlightening than any class I’d ever taken or any book I’d ever read.
The reason hearing “Kill” felt like a lightning bolt to my heart was because it was one. It didn’t matter who I’d been leading up to those four heavenly minutes, because after them, nothing would ever be the same. I’d found my niche, my passion, my life. It was music. It was this song. And all I could think of in the 30 seconds after the music stopped was this: “I’ve gotta hear the rest of this album.”
The instant emotional connection I had with “Kill” was like nothing I’d ever felt before, but it was only the beginning of the journey that I would take with Futures—a journey that has lasted through each of the past 10 years. The first time I sat down to hear the album front to back, it was like one life-changing experience after another. The roaring riffs of the title track; the claustrophobic intensity of “Just Tonight”; saving the slowest dance for last in “Work”; the canals freezing in “The World You Love; the kiss with open eyes on “Pain”; the haunting feedback-and-piano arrangement of “Drugs or Me”; the exquisite pain permeating every second of “Polaris”; the good song to say what I can’t in “Night Drive”; the pounding aggression of “Nothingwrong”; and certainly the all-encompassing symphonic swell of “23.” Every song brought something new into my world.
A few weeks after Futures arrived in my life, my step dad lost his job. I vividly remember arriving home from school one afternoon and having him come downstairs and tell me that his position had been “eliminated.” It was a blow, of course, but he was already looking for similar work and assured me that we weren’t going to end up on the street or anything. He did tell me, though, that not all of the jobs he was looking at were close by, and that there was a possibility we would have to move away.
That revelation sent me reeling, and for a couple of weeks, I was in purgatory. Because I was selfish: I understood that my stepdad needed to go where there was work, and that my family needed to go with him. But the prospect of moving away from the only town I’d ever known—a year before high school, no less—scared the shit out of me. I’d lived in this place since I was four: I didn’t know another world. I’d gone to school with the same kids for eight years: I couldn’t imagine a world without them. I had high hopes of attending and graduating from the same high school where my siblings had gone: I didn’t want to move to an alien place and become the outsider you pity in every teenage movie and TV show.
In short, I was in turmoil. And during the few weeks when my own future was perhaps more uncertain than it has been at any other point in my life, I turned to Futures for comfort. These songs seemed to understand me. They knew my thoughts, my hopes, my pain. Every lyric seemed to connect to something I was going through. “I fall asleep with my friends around me/Only place I know, I feel safe/I’m gonna call this home,” my favorite line from “The World You Love,” was representative of the comfort and familiarity I wanted to hold onto in my hometown. And in the words of “Polaris,” in “You say that love goes anywhere/In your darkest time, it’s just enough to know it’s there,” I tried to see the light at the end of the tunnel—even during what I considered to be my darkest time.
Futures held me together during those weeks. It was a containment device for all of my nervous energy and my worry, and a vessel for all of the prayers and wishes I was making that my step dad would find a job close to home. And I don’t know if it was the album or God or dumb luck or just my step dad’s resolve to avoid a move, but somehow, those wishes and prayers were answered. The day he told me we were staying put, I took a victory run with this album in my CD player. And when the words “I always believed in futures/Hope for better in November” burst through my headphones that day, the proclamation was like my own victorious battle cry. A colossal weight was lifting off my shoulders, and the same songs that had been there to prop me up during the struggles were now there to soundtrack the victory. My future was set; I was staying at home. And this record was staying with me.
And stay it did. I’ve heard a lot of new albums in the 10 years since that tumultuous autumn, but Futures has never stopped hitting me like that lightning bolt to the heart I first felt during “Kill.” And I know that this “review” is light on musical analysis, but honestly, words can’t do justice to how much I adore every second of this record. Not that I haven’t tried: I wrote about Futures on a standardized test once, for God’s sake. (I am not kidding.) And I wrote more than 2,000 words about it at the end of 2009, trying to describe how much it had meant to me in those first five years. Fast forward another five years and here’s another couple thousand words, and I’m still getting nowhere near the point where I would run out of superlatives to throw at this album. I can’t explain the feeling I still get on fall nights when I put this record on and it’s like nothing's changed. I can’t explain why I get chills every time I drop the needle on the gorgeous blue vinyl copy that showed up a few weeks ago. I can’t explain why this record felt like the only appropriate soundtrack when it was 10:30 p.m. on December 31, 2009 and the minutes left in that decade were ticking down.
What I can explain is this: if it hadn’t been for Futures, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be an obsessive music fan—at least not in the same way I am now. I wouldn’t be writing for this website. Hell, I might not even be writing at all. More than any other record in my collection, this album has always felt tied to my fate, to who I am. It feels autobiographical. And there are a million reasons for that. The love of music it facilitated is one of them, sure. But the fact that it was this record that played as the course of my young life was set, as I learned I would be staying in my hometown, well…I can’t overstate how much that still matters to me to this day. Because I found my life in that town over the next few years. I found who I am. I found my friends. I found my passions. I found the girl I married. I found everything. And I can’t quite explain why, but I have always felt as if I owed at least a little piece of all that to this record. It truly did change my life.
Futures are unpredictable. In “23,” Jim Adkins makes a plea with some unknown entity: “Don’t give away the end, the one thing that stays mine.” But no one can give away the ending. No one can tell you where you will be in a day, or a month, or a year. Our best-laid plans can always go awry. Hell, this record taught me that just recently. Since 2004, I’d always imagined myself at the 10-year anniversary concert tour for Futures, singing along to “23” when I actually was 23. And I had tickets and was ready to go, right up until the moment my mom called me, nine days before the concert, to tell me my Grandpa had died. His funeral was the day of the show, and I had to miss the tour. I don’t regret it at all: that’s life, and some things are just more important than concerts…even concerts celebrating your favorite albums on the planet. But it just reinforced everything this record has taught me over the past 10 years, and that it continues to teach me to this day: that life is precious, that every choice we make is important, and that it’s okay to stare off into the great unknown and feel a little bit scared sometimes.
In all of my failed attempts to predict the future, though, I got at least one thing right. On the eve of my 14th birthday, all the way back in 2004, I listened to “23” before turning in for the night. It was 10 or 11:00 p.m., just the closing couple of hours in that particular year of my life. And I remember thinking: “I am still going to be listening to this in 10 years.” Not only am I still listening to Futures and still learning from it, though, but I’m also still leaning on it for comfort. The day after my grandfather passed, my vinyl copy of Futures arrived on the doorstep. And I thought, “Someone out there must know I need a little help today.” It’s probably cheesy and overly sentimental to call an album your “guardian angel.” But some albums really do change your life, and this one never seems to stop saving mine. So thanks, Jimmy Eat World, for having that kind of impact on me. I really do owe you one.