By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
The birth of Bleed American was a fairly adventurous one: After a difficult two-album turn with Capitol Records, Jimmy Eat World decided to strike out on its own in 2000, parting ways with its label and management and mortgaging its financial future to fund the recording of the album on its own. The industry buzz on the still-in-the-works record (produced by longtime collaborator Mark Trombino) was so strong that it invited the interest of the powerful G.A.S. agency (the firm that shepherds the careers of the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth) and eventually DreamWorks Records. Sold-out European tours with Weezer, American festival jaunts with blink-182, late-night TV talk-show appearances and glowing reviews in glossy national mags would come in rapid succession.
Bleed American lives up to all the promise. Kicking things off is the song "Bleed American," a deceptive choice for the opener and title track, inasmuch as it's the least representative song of the album. Striking an incisive tone, Adkins attempts a vaguely sociopolitical statement about modern-day America. Allusions to "the picket line or the parade" are designed to point out the vast paradoxes and cruel dichotomy of life in the United States--a worldview informed, no doubt, by the band's extensive international touring. And like William Eggelston's cover photo, Adkins is trying to get past the familiar façade--the America of loving cups and Lucky Strikes--and down to the harsh reality beneath the pallid surface.
Although "Bleed American" might've been intended as a sort of topical diatribe against the inequities of the not-so-good-old USA, it works more effectively as a personal manifesto. The angular, jutting wall of guitars combines with frenzied drumming to create an atmosphere of disjointed tension. In fact, the song's jittery, wild-eyed quality makes it play like a panic attack set to music. The lyrics ("I'm not crazy because I take the right pills every day") also hint at a far more personal turmoil at its core. By the time the track reaches its coda and Adkins lets out with a soul-searing howl, listeners will feel as though they've been witness to an exorcism. It's an emotional purge that seems to clear the deck for the more focused material that follows.
The next track, "A Praise Chorus," takes a sharp turn toward the hooky, employing a clever vocal stutter step that hasn't ch-ch-ch-changed since David Bowie did the same nearly a quarter of a century ago. More significantly, the song signals a pivotal turn in the band's direction and the moment where the truth of the record begins to reveal itself. On the band's earlier releases, Static Prevails and, to a lesser extent, Clarity, there were moments when JEW seemed to be looking over its shoulder at a not-so-distant musical past. At times the songs were encumbered by this very sense of personal history, a noble (if impractical) desire to remain true to some idealized hard-core, emo-core or indie ethic. Nearly a decade into its career, though, the band has paid off its old debts, broken any lingering allegiance it might've felt and instead decided to embrace "pop"--both in terms of form and function--with a wholehearted abandon.
As has been the case with most of rock's youthful practitioners, JEW's songs, up until now, have been inclined only to look toward the future. But age and experience have given the band's work a newfound sense of nostalgia. By the time "Praise" reaches its climax with Adkins' pleas of "Sing me something that I know," leading into a choral cop of Tommy James' (or more likely Joan Jett's) version of "Crimson and Clover," sung by Davey Von Bohlen of the Promise Ring, it's obvious that the band has discovered a fresh muse.
In a way, "A Praise Chorus" shares an unlikely kinship with the work of Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter. Hunter, who's made a career of penning laddish tales of rock-and-roll nostalgia ("Saturday Gigs," "All the Way From Memphis," "Roll Away the Stone"), exhibited a fondness early on for the comfort and deliverance found in the familiar strains of an old song--a tradition that Adkins continues in this track. Over Von Bohlen's homage to "Crimson," Adkins admits to his own "rock-and-roll fantasy" and begs for someone to "kick start my rock-and-roll heart." Clichés, to be sure, but in the hands of these young dudes they're both unexpected and effective--an affirmation that for all the premature reports of its demise, the old Mott-esque view of rock and roll as saving grace has continued to thrive among Gen X and Yers as well. Later, Bleed's penultimate cut, "Authority Song," reinforces the overall retro feel. As the title suggests, it's an homage to the John Mellencamp tune of the same name; the riff that threads the song is also a nick of the Coug's "Hurts So Good." Musically, the band returns to the candyfloss Big '80s pop of its youth--cascading oohs and aahs, timely handclaps--with a recidivist's glee.
So does "The Middle," an electro-New Wave, hey-little-girl-it's-gonna-work-out anthem, which--like most of the other old-school nuggets included here--is haunted by the specter of '70s and '80s California power pop. And while it's a safe bet that Adkins and company's CD collections don't include anything by the 20/20, Rubinoos or the Beat, they've still managed to craft a collection of songs that falls squarely in the tradition of Poptopia! and Yellow Pills flag wavers. How the frequently dogmatic citizens of the indie nation will react to an album that owes more to Ian Gomm than Ian Mackaye is a calculated risk. It's no coincidence, then, that the band quickly sequences "Sweetness" next. The most classic JEW-sounding cut on the record, the tune utilizes the same thrust-and-parry rhythms and propulsive chorus that made "Lucky Denver Mint" a minor hit and fan favorite.