Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jimmy Eat World - Clarity (16-Year Retrospective Review)

This piece is a retrospective review about the album widely regarded to be Jimmy Eat World's first masterpiece. Normally, I write these pieces for milestone anniversaries. This album is not approaching a milestone anniversary (though it will turn a remarkable 16 years old on February 23rd. Instead, I'm writing this "review" because 1) Kenneth (CoffeeEyes17) has an infectious obsession with this album that inspired my to spend some extra time with it recently, and 2) because no review (user or staff) exists for this album in the database. Anyway, without further ado, this is Clarity.

The first time I heard Jimmy Eat World's Clarity was in January 2005—nearly six years after its release date. The previous autumn, I'd fallen head over heels in love with the band's then-most-recent work Futures. It was an album that connected with me at a very crucial time of my life, and as a result, it was one of the first albums—if not the first album—that showed me just how visceral music could be when you really needed it. Around the same time, I was just starting to frequent music forums online (in a journey that would eventually lead me to AbsolutePunk), and fellow posters saw my love of Futures and asked me the obvious question: had I heard Clarity? As far as I remember it, these people framed Futures almost as a Clarity Part 2. They definitely suggested that "23" was a natural successor to the equally epic "Goodbye Sky Harbor," and suggested that if I loved Futures, I might just love Clarity even more.

My fellow forum posters, of course, all meant well. Their enthusiasm was admirable, as was their investment in helping me discover more music I might love. What they probably didn't realize was that, in calling Clarity the natural predecessor to Futures, they jacked my expectations up to such an unrealistic level that I was bound to be disappointed. Futures, at that point in time, meant more to me than any other piece of music I had ever experienced in my life. In the 11-plus years that have passed since, there have been maybe two albums that have come to mean more, and even that statement is debatable. Futures was the genesis rock of my music obsession, and to this day, any album that earns a comparison to Futures is one I end up being disappointed with. Twice last fall, I was told that new scene bands were about to break through with albums that captured the dark but hopeful vibe of Jimmy Eat World's 2004 masterpiece. Both albums—Better Off's Milk and Pentimento's I, No Longer—were solid efforts; neither were worthy of the lofty comparison.

If comparing albums to Futures still sets me up for disappointment 11 years after the fact, you can imagine what it did to Clarity. When I got the CD sometime in January, I excitedly cracked the plastic wrap and opened the jewel case. The disc itself piqued my interest, with the phrase "Can you still feel the butterflies" typed out in white text against a black background. I quickly ripped the album to my computer and synced to my iPod, and within a few minutes, I was pressing play and sinking in to an album that—hopefully—I would love as much as Futures.

Ironically, I would find an album within the month that I would come to love as much as Futures, but it wasn't Clarity. That's not to say I hated it. There were plenty of moments that I loved on Jimmy Eat World's so-called "first masterpiece," even from that first listen. In particular, the steady build of "Table for Glasses" and the sweep of "For Me This is Heaven" caught my ears, and it's not hard to see why: those two songs are the moments from Clarity that sound the most like Futures songs. Other parts of the album, meanwhile, I just didn't get. Who was this other dude singing on "Blister"? Why was "Your New Aesthetic" so loud and unpolished? Why did "Goodbye Sky Harbor" have to loop the same thing over and over and over and over again for 16 minutes straight?

All told, my first listen to Clarity was…confusing. I liked it, but I definitely didn't love it. There were moments that I adored, but also moments that I would have at the time classified as "filler." As a start-to-finish work, I honestly thought Clarity was kind of a mess. Too long; too lyrically abstract; not enough hooks; too few dynamite riffs; etc. I especially thought that the idea of Futures being Clarity Part 2 was way off base.

I've since recanted on all of those points but one: Clarity and Futures are not companion albums. Listeners often link them because they are the darker and more introspective releases in the Jimmy Eat World discography—in contrast to the brighter, more pop-influenced Bleed American and Chase This Light. But Futures also has a radio rock sheen to it—brought to the table by producer Gil Norton, who also helmed peak-fame albums from Foo Fighters, Counting Crows, and Dashboard Confessional. The songs on Futures are more concise, the lyrics more direct, the choruses catchier, and the riffs more pronounced. Because Mark Trombino, Clarity's producer, was originally the man behind the boards for Futures, some of his orchestral or experimental style carries over—like on that long sweeping into to "23," or the minimalist piano-and-feedback arrangement of "Drugs or Me." For the most part, though, these records are distinct from one another. Futures sounds like a rock record circa 2004—perhaps the last year where radio rock really seemed to matter—while Clarity is also a product of its time, a collection that parlays 90s alt-rock, punk, and even a bit of dream pop into the ultimate emo prototype.

Looking back now, the differences between Clarity and Futures make me love the records even more. I wouldn't want them to be more alike. But back then, I didn't get it. I went into Clarity expecting an earlier, rougher version Futures and got something that my 14-year-old ears didn't really understand. Even though I told myself that I was musically refined at the time—and compared to my friends, as the only kid at my school who had an iPod, I was—but my ears still favored slick production, big bold melodies, and lyrics that were easier to relate to without having to do a line-by-line analysis.

I never let Clarity go or dismissed it out of hand, but I would be lying if I said I loved it. I wanted to "feel the butterflies" for that album like I did for Futures (and like everyone else online seemed to), but at the time, I couldn't. Years passed and I delved deeper and deeper into new music, but in retrospect, I stayed in the same lane for a long time. Ultra-melodic pop-rock was my wheelhouse and all of my favorite albums from those years—Butch Walker's Letters, Jack's Mannequin's Everything in Transit, John Mayer's Continuum, The Killers' Sam's Town, The Wallflowers' Rebel, Sweetheart, Matt Nathanson's Some Mad Hope—fit pretty neatly into that box. When Jimmy Eat World's Chase This Light came along and had even bigger hooks and brighter studio sheen than Futures, it was exactly what I wanted to hear from the band. To this day, "Dizzy" might be the song that a computer would spit out if it had to create my ideal composition: that's how much the tenets of melody and emotion drove my listening back then.

It wasn't until my senior year of high school that the walls I'd subconsciously built as a listener started to come down. Two very notable things happened that year in my journey as a music fan: first, I started using this website as my primary means of discussing and discovering new music; second, I became obsessed with the music of Bruce Springsteen. The first of those events helped me start venturing out into new genres, while the second made me focus less on pure melody and more on songwriting as a whole—from the lyrics to the nuances of the full-band work. Subsequently, in the final spring of my high school career, I put on Clarity and finally understood it. I marveled at how Jim Adkins could wring so much of emotion from a song that is, quite literally, about a woman sweeping dirty steps and dropping dirt into glasses on a table; I admired the intimacy of "A Sunday," bells, chimes, and all; I continued to fall deeper in love with songs like "Just Watch the Fireworks" and "For Me This is Heaven"—enjoying the latter even more now because Something Corporate's "Konstantine" had become one of my favorite songs; I even respected that long, long fadeout on "Goodbye Sky Harbor," how the song builds subtly and then decays to nothing, the sound of a band using up every inch of tape on the reel.

Lyrically, Clarity might still be my least favorite of the post-Static Prevails Jimmy Eat World records. I think the sort of abstract, minimalist lyrical style that Jim had here helped Clarity become the emo classic it was, and has also helped the record age well. The lyrics are poetic enough to avoid sounding juvenile, but with enough surface angst for tens of thousands of teenagers to relate to them. Compared to the more narrative-driven work of Jimmy Eat World's more recent work—particularly Damage—the songs on Clarity provide a lot of space for listeners to draw their own interpretive conclusions and filter in their own experiences. Suffice to say that most listeners probably do not think of "Table for Glasses" as a song that is actually about a table for glasses.

Personally, I find less to relate to on an emotional level in the words of Clarity. My visceral connection to the songs on Futures is well-documented at this point, and I really think Jim has reached a higher plane lyrically on more recent songs like "Invented" and "Dizzy." There are, of course, moments I love: that big-hearted declaration of "I'll stay up as late as it takes" on "Just Watch the Fireworks"; the way the chorus of "For Me This is Heaven" captures the brevity of everything in the space of four gut-punch lines; and how "Blister" turns a seriously emo question into an anthemic rallying cry: "How long would it take me to walk across the United States all alone?"

But for me, what is truly astounding about Clarity is the way the band executes these arrangements. Later Jimmy Eat World albums—with the exception of Damage, which had a deliberate garage-rock aesthetic—would all have a glossy studio sheen to them. In 2010, Mark Trombino came back—after almost a decade of not working with the band—to turn Invented into their fullest, best sounding work. With Clarity, though, Jimmy Eat World were at a crossroads. They were shedding the harder-edged punk sound of Static Prevails—partially because of the songs they were writing, partially because of Tom Linton's reduced role on vocals—but they hadn't yet started shooting for the big radio sound. The result is a record that is meticulously arranged and produced, but which still retains the rawness of the band's earlier work. A bigger recording budget from Capitol also meant the band spent more time in the studio and invested a fair amount of money on new equipment and instrument rentals—both factors that affected the scope and atmosphere of Clarity.

The band's willingness to experiment, combined with Trombino's ability to push the band toward new arrangements if he thought a song could be improved ("Just Watch the Fireworks," for instance, originally started as a slower, more ballad-y composition) meant that Jimmy Eat World were sort of making things up as they went along on Clarity. You can hear that looseness and spontaneity in the songs—especially on vinyl, where all of the various instrumental lines stick out in vibrant color. Jimmy Eat World might get pigeonholed as an emo or "scene" band in the broader musical community—particularly among the people who have still only ever heard "The Middle" and "Sweetness." But take the time to sit down and actually listen to Clarity—undistracted and unencumbered—and it's clear just how musically accomplished these four guys are. In terms of chops, Jimmy Eat World were, are, and probably always will be underrated.

It took me a long time to appreciate Clarity for the accomplishment it is: all those years of knowing the album's influence and pedigree, but not quite loving it myself. I still can't call it my favorite Jimmy Eat World album. Forever, I will rank Futures first, and second place is probably, honestly, a five-way tie. But now, when I play this record, when I hit "For Me This is Heaven" and hear that achingly wistful chorus, I can at least deliver the correct answer to the song's unforgettable rhetorical question.

"Can you still feel the butterflies?"

A resounding "yes."

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