Jimmy Eat World – Reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of “Clarity”

The Album Came Out on February 23, 1999

Feb 22, 2019
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Though they were one of only a few bands from the 1990s scene now referred to as "second generation'" emo to be picked up by a major label, Jimmy Eat World started out more middle of the pack than leader. It was exposure to the dynamic edge of bands such as Christie Front Drive and Sunny Day Real Estate that pulled them away from their straight-up pop punk origins. Then again, in the post-Dookie days of 1995, straight-up pop punk was surely what Capitol Records was after. If they had actually seen Clarity coming, the label might not have signed them in the first place.

Jimmy Eat World weren't the next Green Day in waiting, but their instincts were more commercially tuned than the bands they split 7-inch singles with. Speaking about those early days on the Washed Up Emo podcast in 2013, lead singer/guitarist Jim Adkins noted that the "accessible-versus-challenging ratio was kind of always in question." For a group of underage kids from Mesa, Arizona, they showed a solid pop acumen. Their orbit in post-hardcore circles may have obfuscated it for a while, but it would soon come through clear—the trajectory is right there in the titles of those two Capitol albums.  

"I think what planted the seed of being a band came from watching early MTV," says Adkins in the Believe In What You Want documentary from 2004. That wasn't just a glib answer; he stuck to it years later, specifically citing Quiet Riot videos as an example of what made rock 'n' roll look badass to him back in elementary school. That cable channel was one of the few cultural escape hatches for many young Americans in the '80s and '90s stranded out in suburbs like the one just east of Phoenix. It's fitting that MTV was foremost responsible for Jimmy Eat World's big 2001 breakthrough. Consciously or not, they had been working their way toward writing for that audience even before Bleed American.

Static Prevails, Jimmy Eat World's second album and first for Capitol, had its admirers (Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 famously among them), but sales numbers didn't match expectations. In a lengthy feature for Punk Planet in late 2000 on the late '90s punk rock crash, writer Kyle Ryan highlighted how the young band were mishandled and stymied by corporate impatience. Signed to a developmental deal "for one record with the option of six more," they were already in limbo when Static Prevails stalled. Equally unimpressed with what they were hearing of Clarity, Capitol had the band release a couple songs on an EP to see if they could drum up radio interest. "If not, then Jimmy Eat World would probably be dropped and the record shelved."

They were somehow at the end of the line, and at most a marginal concern for their overseers. "I think we approached making that record like we would never get a chance to make another record in an actual studio again," Adkins explained to Washed Up Emo, "so we did go kinda nuts...like: 'Alright, today we're renting timpani!'" Clarity does feature recurring appearances from cellist Suzie Katayama and violinist Joel Derouin, while the rest of the band (guitarist/vocalist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch, and drummer Zach Lind) and Mark Trombino (who was then still making his post-Drive Like Jehu name as a producer) pick up farfisa, minimoog, casiotone, piano, vibes, bells, chimes, and sequencers.

This kind of move was not uncommon for rock bands at the time. The various "classic" affectations of the era that led to sprawling works like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the chamber pop movement, and dozens of alt-rock bands dressing up potential hits with string sections, didn't fully let up until the '90s were over. Jimmy Eat World had a decent budget and few people looking over their shoulder. Had they wanted to make their own Brain Salad Surgery for kicks on the way out, they might have gotten away with it. Instead they came up with "Lucky Denver Mint," which should have been their first "The Middle" before "The Middle" happened.

If one suspected at the time that "Lucky Denver Mint" was the result of Jimmy Eat World being prodded by Capitol to cough up a hit, there was evidence in the song's placement on the soundtrack to the Drew Barrymore comedy Never Been Kissed in April of 1999. The timing was right, as Clarity had just come out in February, though it had been finished since the previous August. Someone at the label must have been glad to have an ear-catching song to push the album with, but given how generally ignored they were at this point, it's more likely that Jimmy Eat World wrote "Lucky Denver Mint" simply because they wanted to. The copious catchy singles the band has written since reinforces that idea.

Jimmy Eat World has spent a long career dallying with the mainstream, but their intention to do so was not entirely obvious in 1999. In relation to the body of work that followed it, Clarity is the closest thing to an aberration. They did not make Bleed American so that they could get away with making Clarity II, they made Bleed American because they didn't want to make Clarity again. If it was all just about unhappy associations with the experience that would be understandable, but the band's attitude even right after the whole ordeal solidified not into "majors are bad" but "we were on a major too early," and even in recent years their own opinions of Clarity have been mixed. Which is odd, given how highly it is regarded among fans.

Though Believe In What You Want is named for a song on the album, Clarity isn't even mentioned by name in it until roughly halfway through the documentary feature (before the concert footage). The scene is an in-studio interview with Trombino as he works on Bleed American. "Clarity is...one of the reasons why I get work," he says, "so, you know, I felt like if I could make another one of those...it'll be good for me." It's a funny, matter-of-fact way to explain why he wasn't bothered that Jimmy Eat World were then funding those recording sessions alone and couldn't pay up front, but it also shows the impression that their previous album had made on other musicians. Among them was Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional, who Andy Greenwald notes in his 2003 book, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, as calling it one of the best records ever.

Greenwald writes about how "fiercely beloved" Clarity is, and how it's "name-checked by every single contemporary emo band as their favorite album." The surprise success of Bleed American may have helped open the floodgates for the third generation of emo in the early 2000s, but Clarity—arriving at a point when many of Jimmy Eat World's peers had broken up or were close to doing so—was a turning point between the second and third waves of that genre. It was only a dud in platinum terms, and it kept selling while the band was in between labels. By then, though, the story to push was not a tale of a triumph ignored, but of a triumph that wouldn't be ignored.

It makes sense that Jimmy Eat World were invested in the present and wanted to focus on the ultimately uplifting path to getting Bleed American made and put out on Dreamworks. That moment quickly became, and still remains, their central plot point. But that didn't require them to have mixed feelings about Clarity. Greenwald notes how little the band had to say about it: "Lind: 'It's a very endearing, comfortable sort of record, I guess.' Linton: 'It's more experimental.' Burch: 'It's kind of scattered.'" Could they truly all feel this way about such a beloved part of their catalog?

If you're into conspiracy theories, there might be one to draw out here: that Jimmy Eat World always knew exactly how good Clarity was, but, because of the way it might look to crow about an album that technically underperformed, and because bands can't determine their cult classics, they realized they had to downplay their own opinions of it so that other people would declare its status for them. It's a tempting thought, and the concerts the band played in 2009 to mark the tenth anniversary of the album could indicate they know its real worth, but tours like that are more about audience demand, and there isn't much otherwise to substantiate this line of thinking. Their ambivalence probably wasn't a front. Even in 2013, on the Washed Up Emo podcast Adkins deemed Clarity's experimentation "pretty tame" compared to modern standards.

Artistic reach alone isn't what elevates the album. Everybody Hurts, the light-hearted book on mid-2000s emo culture, accuses Clarity of being a stoner record with many "jammy songs," but the majority of its 13 tracks come in around four minutes or less. Only two really qualify as long, and the seven-minute "Just Watch the Fireworks" has a fairly normal structure drawn out by Katayama's and Derouin's strings and a somewhat saccharine movie script beginning bit. Only "Goodbye Sky Harbor," three minutes of melodic start-stop riff-and-chime followed by 13 minutes of morphing-cloud blissout, fully earns any "experimental" tag.

Adkins had a point. Aside from those two songs, the use of a simple electronic beat in the wistful midpoint "12.23.95," and the fact that "Table For Glasses" is a relatively slow opener, Clarity wasn't very out-of-left-field even for Jimmy Eat World. For each stretch, there's a tightening up, a "Crush" or a "Blister" that focuses the melodic aggro of Static Prevails and sets the stage for Bleed American's big hooks. "Everything is disgustingly catchy and straight ahead," Adkins told the Dallas Observer in October of 2000 about Bleed American, which was then still in the works. "I guess it's...an elaboration of the stuff that was leaning toward simple on the last record."

Whereas the previous challenge had been to indulge, the challenge after Clarity, Adkins explained, was to simplify. Adjectives like "direct" and "concise" were used positively by band and reviewers alike to praise Bleed American's streamlined sound. The thing is, Jimmy Eat World weren't coming out from under a long history at the alt-rock vanguard; they had made one album that clocked in at a little over an hour, and already decided that was enough of that. So what possessed them to make an album like Clarity in the first place?

It can't just be because it was their last chance to make a record like it, as they've had plenty of chances to make one after the success of Bleed American. Jimmy Eat World have proven quite adaptable to the mainstream. Futures found the group ahead of the curve on whoa-oh rock, and they were trying their hand at ultra-pop tunes like "Here It Goes" from Chase This Light long before they and Taylor Swift started covering each other live. The occasional seven-minute track has made an appearance as an album wind-down, but they don't bust out the old school drum machine and loops at the end. For all the love that Clarity got, and still gets, a sequel is probably not forthcoming.

In late November of 2013, Jim Adkins came back for a second appearance on the Washed Up Emo podcast, where host Tom Mullen mediated a reminiscing session between Adkins and his old friend Eric Richter from Christie Front Drive, the Denver band Jimmy Eat World had first split a 7-inch with. At one point, Richter nailed Clarity's place in their discography. "It really latches on to people, that record," he said to Adkins. "I hear more people talking about that record than anything else, really. Which is funny because you guys were in such a weird spot at that time." Notoriously well adjusted as individuals, Jimmy Eat World are resilient, the only band from their '90s emo crew that hasn't had to reunite in order to tour and make music in this decade. Even back then in the middle of it all, they looked for the positive in the label situation with Clarity, but the circumstances around the album were complicated. Much like their feelings about it afterward must have been, and still seem to be.   

www.jimmyeatworld.com

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