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.
Those more enamored of the band's introspective side will respond favorably to a quartet of mid-to-slower-tempo album cuts. Several of these--specifically "Hear You Me" and "My Sundown"--were originally penned for Adkins' orch-pop side project Go Big Casino. Suitably hushed and more restrained than JEW's previous forays into similar territory, they also mark a development in Adkins' ability to create complex emotional dilemmas, narratives that go beyond the wistful melancholy of schoolboy crushes and teen heartbreak.
The first, "Your House," works well enough in this regard, though Adkins' singing comes off as slightly twee. Still, Trombino's subtle production touches--stealthlike organ, emotion punctuating percussion--save the song from veering into the realm of puppy-dog pap. The band is more effective at translating the genuinely sanguine sentiment of "Hear You Me." The song--part remorse poem and part eulogy for a dead love affair--is a remarkable bit of craftsmanship. Adkins' burnished vocals navigate the tune, as a bedrock of acoustic guitar dances with a lilting countermelody. Elsewhere, tinkling piano fills and an organ aping the settling of a flügelhorn fades beautifully into the lachrymose din of Rachel Haden's angelic croon.
As a writer, Adkins' motives don't seem all that far removed from Elvis Costello's famous line about "revenge and guilt." JEW covers the latter admirably with "Hear" before tackling the former on the album's standout, "Get It Faster." Opening with a minute's worth of ominous shudders and thuds, the cut eventually settles into a ticking time-bomb groove, which quickly explodes into a chorus of such Promethean depth and grandeur that it would send even the most dedicated power chord progeny running for cover. Arguably, it's the highlight of the JEW canon--as well as the Bleed track whose construction seems to most bear the fingerprints of guitarist Tom Linton. As "Get It Faster" amply proves, Linton remains the band's ace card. His ability to suffuse the material with an army of plangent guitars, swooning lead breaks, supple sonic touches and a general effort serving as point man in Adkins' aural assaults is invaluable.
Even when Adkins' material comes up short, as on the unwieldy "Cautioners" (previously released in demo form on last year's split EP with Jedibiah), he still offers up moments of inspiration. Like the most interesting wordsmiths, Adkins isn't afraid to double back on himself regularly, taking a stand or expressing an opinion in one line, only to question or contradict its wisdom in the very next ("Making my peace/Making it with distance/Maybe that's a big mistake"). It's an element that helps JEW's wordplay avoid the paint-by-numbers lyrical approach that many of its peers seem to wallow in. In contrast to fellow contemporaries--the Get Up Kids and Modest Mouse, for instance, who've already shown us the bottom of their tiny bag of tricks--Jimmy Eat World still manages to surprise on a regular basis.
For example: Bleed American closes on a decidedly down note with the elegiac "My Sundown." "Said my goodbyes, this is my sundown/I'm going to be so much more than this," croons Adkins over a pulsating lullaby of minor-chord sorrow. While it may seem premature, even cheeky, for a 25-year-old to attempt something like "My Sundown"--though no more odd than a twentysomething John Lennon warbling "In My Life"--Adkins delivers his tale with such a weighty sense of resignation it's hard not to believe he's about to drift off into the abyss on a mournful cloud of acoustica.
It's obvious that JEW's new pop-oriented direction might alienate some but ultimately garner a larger audience than the band has ever enjoyed. Those among the indier-than-thou set, musicians, scenesters, hipsters and the like, who're sure to dismiss Bleed American for not being sufficiently adventurous, dissonant or corrosive. But it's a ridiculous argument. It is--as author Nick Hornby once put it--like criticizing a circle for not having any edges. JEW has emerged from the indie-rock shadows with a redefined sense of self. It has smoothed the sharp angles and corners of its old noise in favor of something warmer, prettier and ultimately more satisfying. "I've got no secret purpose," offers Adkins defiantly at the end of "Authority Song," and, indeed, his mission seems clear.