Album Review: Jimmy Eat World - Integrity Blues

I was introduced to Jimmy Eat World during my first year of college, when a friend of mine casually slid a copy of Clarity my direction in what basically amounted to a “this will change your life” moment. He also, less emphatically, tossed me a copy of the band’s just released commercial breakthrough, Bleed American.

And heck, he was right. 17 years after its release and 15 after I first heard the slow build up of “Table For Glasses,” Clarity is Jimmy Eat World’s masterpiece—an album so good, it got them dropped from their major label deal with Capitol Records; an album that is both a complete product of its time, and yet, is somehow timeless.

At 18, Clarity was like a gateway drug—like someone handing me a joint before showing me where a table full of cocaine was. Jimmy Eat World opened the door for me to dive deep (deeper than I should have, probably) into the much-maligned genre known as “emo.”

Despite how well Clarity has aged, and, for the most part, Bleed American, time has not been as kind of Jimmy Eat World as a band, or a brand, or an idea. The cracks started to show on Bleed American’s spotty follow up, Futures. The politically themed titular track, released mere weeks before the 2004 presidential election, had a relatively short shelf-life, and save for a few key tracks, the album suffered from bloated production values and songs that just weren’t as good as what I felt the band was capable of.

The last time I paid attention to Jimmy Eat World was nearly a decade ago, when they released Chase This Light. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I had possibly aged out of the band’s demographic at this point (I was 24), or maybe it had to do with the continued decline in the band’s output. I think it speaks volumes of the kind of album you’re making when, aside from maybe, like, one song, one of the best songs (“Be Sensible”) is cut from the album’s final track list and relegated to being a bonus track.

Aside from a few nostalgia trips with Clarity and Bleed American, Jimmy Eat World isn’t a band that I’ve given a ton of thought to—specifically giving thought to their latter day output. But, recently, the very talented Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen reviewed the band’s latest, Integrity Blues, and the album itself scored an eyebrow raising 7.3 out of 10, with Cohen calling it a “spiritual sequel” to Bleed American.

A sequel, spiritual or otherwise, it’s not. But, much to my surprise, 20 years down the line from the band’s ramshackle major label debut, Static Prevails, it’s surprisingly listenable. Yes, the band still favors bombastic and bloated production values (manning the boards this time around is bass player and producer extraordinaire Justin Meldal-Johnsen), but with the band’s members pushing 40, Integrity Blues doesn’t reach the heights of “adult emo” like the recently released album from American Football, but it tries, and that’s commendable.

The album opens up with a relatively flawless four-song run, showing that Jimmy Eat World haven’t lost their flair for the dramatic and theatrical when it comes to song arrangements. The opening track, “You With Me” skitters with synthesizer undertones and effected strummed acoustic guitars; the whole song (like most Jimmy Eat World songs) serves as a vehicle to get to the refrain, which, like most Jimmy Eat World songs, aims for anthem status as frontman Jim Adkins belts it out—“What makes our love so hard to be? Is it you? Or is that you with me?

Later, “Sure and Certain” twinkles with its huge refrain; then, on “It Matters,” you can almost feel the pensive tension with which each keyboard key is struck.

Things fall apart with the practically unlistenable “Pass The Baby,” and the aggressive guitar-driven “Get Right” is not much better. However, the band begins to pull it together again within the album’s second half as they dip back into the heavy handed, very dramatic emotional content on the epic, sweeping “You Are Free,” which contains possibly the biggest sounding refrain of the entire album.

Another marginally successful latter track is the dreamy, soaring waltz, “The End is Beautiful,” which leads into the album’s final three song sequence—there’s the last chance, fist-pumping anthem, “Through,” the atmospheric titular track, which features some interesting vocal production on Adkin’s voice, and the obvious closing track—“Pol Roger,” a near seven-minute epic, packed with horn and string arrangements, and a chorus that comes crashing down on you with everything it has.

In his review of Integrity Blues, Cohen referred to it as “’23’ going on 40,” a sly wink to the equally as epic and emotionally manipulative final track on Futures. Rarely do I agree with Ian Cohen, but here, he’s got a point. “I’m not scared to spend my birthday alone,” Adkins quietly sings as the song builds up around him. “Are you the alone like me?,” he coyly asks. “Alone, but not lonely.”

The fact that it is 2016 and Jimmy Eat World are still releasing albums is pretty commendable. Also commendable is the fact that they have had the same line up for 20 years. These guys could have called it a day a long time ago, or just simply faded into early 2000’s obscurity, but instead, they keep going, releasing new music (on major labels, even) with some regularity. It’s doubtful that they’ll ever be as big as they were in 2001 or 2002 off of the surprise success of “The Middle.” That time has come and gone, and now they just make the music that, I suppose, they want to make, continuing to grow in their sound, while still holding onto certain elements that made them who they are.

With cover art that looks like it was pilfered from a YA novel, Integrity Blues is not a late career misstep, but it’s also not another breakthrough or a comeback. You can’t “come back” if you never really went away. There are moments on this album that are absolutely cringeworthy, but there are also moments that remind you what you may have liked about Jimmy Eat World in the first place when you were at a point in your life where this band spoke to you.

Integrity Blues is out now via RCA.