Saturday, March 26, 2016

Third Eye Blind - Dopamine

My initial impression after listening to Third Eye Blind's Dopamine for the first time was something along the lines of "People are going to hate this." That's not because Dopamine, the long awaited fifth full-length from these 1990s hit makers, is a departure from what Third Eye Blind has done in the past. On the contrary, this is definitely a Third Eye Blind album. There's still the same mix of power pop and alternative rock that endeared this band to listeners in the first place, and frontman Stephan Jenkins still writes songs just like he always has: with cutting lyrics and big choruses. In fact, there are a lot of songs on Dopamine that call back to each of the band's previous albums.

But in spite of the fact that tracks like "Shipboard Cook," "Something in You," and "Exiles" should be easy home runs for anyone who has kept listening to Third Eye Blind since they stopped having radio hits, the odds of Dopamine getting positive reception from most fans seem low to me. How come? Take your pick of reasons: the six year wait between Ursa Major, Third Eye Blind's last album, and this; the expectations and disappointments built up by all the times Stephan Jenkins said a new album was in the works; endless questions about the scrapped Ursa Minor album; the controversy surrounding the departure of guitarist Tony Fredianelli, or the subsequent lawsuit where he was awarded almost half a million dollars in damages for denied songwriting credits and wages; the fact that most long-time Third Eye Blind fans didn't like Ursa Major anyway, or that plenty of people still haven't learned how to appreciate this band without the presence of original guitarist Kevin Cadogan. Stephan Jenkins being a well-documented dick, of course, doesn't help matters.

To be sure, being a Third Eye Blind fan these days comes with a lot of baggage. That much was evident in 2009, when the popular reaction to Ursa Major was that it "lacked the magic" of the band's early records. Those willing to get past their own nostalgia were able to uncover beauty in Ursa, though, from the summer night swells of "Bonfire" and "Sharp Knife" to that line about a "muffled 'I love you' through an oxygen mask" on "Water Landing"—one of the five best songs Stephan Jenkins ever wrote. The same is true for Dopamine: there's a classic Third Eye Blind record here, but you're not going to find it on first listen—especially if you're only comparing it to all the memories you have of screaming along to "Semi-Charmed Life" with your best friends, or driving through the rain and having a personal epiphany while "Motorcycle Drive By" blasted in the background.

Case-in-point is leadoff single and opening track "Everything is Easy," which has already been labeled as "lifeless," "emotionless," and "a pale imitation of former glories" by fans. I was personally sold on the song by the time Jenkins dropped a direct lyrical reference to Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" at the start of the final verse, but others might take a little bit longer: this is the song that has to shoulder six years of expectations, after all. It's also Third Eye Blind's least upbeat album opener ever, a patient mid-tempo anthem from a band that has typically kicked off their albums by kicking down the door. Finally, some fans might be frustrated that Stephan Jenkins is still writing break-up songs with lines like "Now I'm just haunted by you constantly" or "Go ahead take my heart up/Roll it up like a joint" at 50. But all told, "Everything is Easy" is a prototypical Third Eye Blind song: verses tinged with darkness; a pure pop chorus; evocative lyrics about heartbreak; a lengthy mid-song break that epitomizes Jenkins' talent for building his songs up, taking them down a notch, and then building them back up again. If anything, the song is almost too Third Eye Blind, but complaining that it lacks emotion or commitment from Jenkins is patently false.

The same goes for the rest of Dopamine, which more or less follows the template of "Everything is Easy" to a T. Like Ursa Major, this is a surprisingly downbeat album from a band that made their name on big summer pop songs like "Semi-Charmed Life" and "Never Let You Go." Unlike Ursa Major, though, Dopamine utilizes more creativity and variation in the arrangements, to keep things from running together. The stellar "Shipboard Cook" opens with a repetitious piano line before exploding into a pounding rock song. "Rites of Passage" and "Back to Zero," meanwhile, are almost danceable, the latter playing like the band's attempt at a dark and dingy 80s nightclub tune. Sliding synths and piano kick off set highlight "Something in You," a huge crescendo of a track that feels tailor-made to be the band's main set closer. New guitarist Kryz Reed shreds dynamic solos all over the place, most notably on the lengthy shape-shifting closing track, "Say It." And the breezy "Exiles," the album's best track, is a 90s-flavored acoustic ballad (think "Deep Inside of You") that should be flagged right now as the anchor of your "end of summer 2015" playlist.

Dopamine's array of mid-tempo tracks and ballads means two things: first, this album doesn't have the immediacy of most of the band's work, and second, those hoping for a perfect summer driving soundtrack might be a bit disappointed. Tunes like "Exiles" and "Something in You" are still great for summer drives, but they're more tailored for sunset cruises or nighttime excursions than for scorching road trips or jaunts to the beach.

The again, most of Third Eye Blind's best songs are ballads anyway, and Stephan Jenkins is clearly in his element for the majority of this record. "Blade," for instance, is a callback to fan favorite "Slow Motion," telling a similarly blood-soaked story in a similarly fractured way. That's not the only place where Jenkins uses nostalgia to his favor, either. There's his personal nostalgia, like that Springsteen homage in "Everything is Easy," or the references to David Bowie that crop up in "Rites of Passage" ("Even diamond dogs have their days/It's like Bowie says/You pretty young things, you go through ch-ch-changes") and "Exiles" ("When 'Ziggy Stardust' plays at a karaoke bar/And I can't remember the DJ's name, everyone knows who you are"). Then, there are the knowing callbacks to his own music, like "Blade" or "Get Me Out of Here," which is like a stripped down version of "Company" from Out of the Vein. Make no mistake, Dopamine is a very "90s alt rock" flavored album—so much so that it often plays like the missing link between Blue and Out of the Vein.

In fact, the album that Dopamine sounds the least like is 1997's Third Eye Blind. In many ways, that record was lightning in a bottle, a one-time miracle that is remarkable not just for how well everything works (from the rock songs to the radio-friendly pop numbers, all the way to the trio of soul-shredding ballads at the end), but also for the fact that it probably couldn't have reached the success it did at literally any other time in music history. Jenkins is smart enough to know that he's not going to make an album like that again, but here, he's still clearly interested in looking back. It's a testament to his talent as a songwriter, as well as to the skills of the band he's assembled here, that he can still make an album that feels like it could have come out during his peak days. His distinctive tenor sounds the same at 50 as it did at 32 (no small feat), and he's still capable of writing catchy songs with deep, unique, and often devastating lyrics. Dopamine isn't his best record, and it might be his worst, but for one of the slyest songwriters from the past two decades of pop, "worst" can still be pretty damn great. Here's hoping Jenkins is full of shit when he says this is the "last" Third Eye Blind LP.

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