Stay Up As Late As It Takes - Jimmy Eat World's Clarity turns 20
Sweep the dirty stairs—the ones I waited on…
In college, during my first year, Mike was in his last.
We were both in the theatre department at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, and I can remember him having a subtle sense of humor, and, overall, having a very quiet, or pensive, demeanor to him.
Mike was affable, and he came across as being genuinely kind—at least to me he was. There was this strange, unspoken tension in the theatre department that the upperclassmen were to keep their distance from those in their first year, only beginning to embrace them if they made it through into their second.
We struck up a friendship early on, though, one based around shared interest in a lot of the same music; it was Mike who introduced me to The Juliana Theory, a pseudo-Christian emo band that, at the time, was on the cusp of big things1 thanks to the slow burning success of the group’s second album Emotion is Dead.
And it was Mike, who slid a CD copy of Clarity across the school’s cafeteria during dinner one evening, late into my first semester, introducing me to Jimmy Eat World.
Clarity is the kind of record that isn’t at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own mythology, but it is the kind of record, like so many that have, for better or worse, stood the test of time and have aged well enough that they warrant celebrating milestone anniversaries, comes with a compelling backstory.
You could say that Clarity was ahead of its time—released just a few years prior to the large emo boom that arrived in contemporary popular music in 2002 and into 2003, which Jimmy Eat World had, more or less, cashed in on and ridden the wave of, with the release of their fourth full-length, Bleed American, released in the summer of 2001, and powered by the infectious and inescapable single, “The Middle.”
Before “The Middle” was everywhere, the band had recorded an album they were, at one point, concerned would be shelved indefinitely. After inking a major label deal with Capitol, Jimmy Eat World released their second full-length, Static Prevails, in 1996—a ramshackle mix of emo and moody alternative rock; even then, Capitol wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the band.
Clarity, a dense, lengthy record, didn’t make things any easier, and Jimmy Eat World was released from their contract in 2000.
There are albums I joke about being ‘so good, it got the band dropped from their record company.’ Moby’s angry and difficult Animal Rights is one of them—Better Than Ezra’s How Does Your Garden Grow? is another.
They are records I love though; records that I’ve taken with me through my teenage years to now—pushing 40. They are records that have moments of accessibility, sure, and a song or two you can see as a ‘single,’ but overall, they are larger, more complicated statements.
Clarity is like that, too. You can hear it from the moment it begins, slowly simmering with a long, organ drone with a skeletal snare hit and ride cymbal keeping time; and you can hear it all way through until its cacophonic, surprising ending, over an hour after it all began.
Major labels don’t always want large, complicated statements though.
Released to little support from the label and mostly overlooked by critics at the time, Clarity arrived in stores on February 23rd, 1999, the same day as Things Fall Apart, and, of all things, The Slim Shady LP.
Following the dismissal from Capitol, the compelling backstory to Clarity dictates that Jimmy Eat world toured incessantly throughout the rest of 1999 and into 2000, and recorded the follow up, Bleed American, with the revenue earned on tour, while still unsigned; eventually, after the record was completed, the band accepted a deal from Dreamworks Records.
Released in July of 2001, even with the controversial title2, Bleed American was certified gold in March of the following year; by August—just over a year after its release, it was platinum, cementing the commercial viability for the band.
Clarity would, over time, develop an overwhelming cult following—cited by numerous other musicians as one of their favorite records of all time, and is often looked at as being a huge influence of the early-to-mid 2000s’s wave of ‘emo’ outfits, it is, you could say, the introspective and difficult older sibling to the relatively straight forward, though bombastically arranged, ‘rock’ found on Bleed American.
Both Clarity and Bleed American are deeply embedded within my DNA.
At our conversation over dinner in the college cafeteria, after Mike had slid his copy of Clarity over to me, he followed it up, very quickly, with Bleed American—both of which I burned CD-Rs of, returning his discs to him promptly.
Both of those albums got me through what wound up being an unbelievably tumultuous Christmas break—it was Bleed American that I skipped around on, focusing on songs like “If You Don’t, Don’t,” “Your House,” and the album’s devastating conclusion, “My Sundown.”
But it was Clarity that, at the time, I would stick with from beginning to end.
The fall, and into the winter of 2001 was a strange time in my life; it’s a time that is surprisingly difficult to look back on, and difficult to process.
At some point, in late October, two months into my first year of college, I had become incredibly homesick—or, at least, what I thought was homesick. In retrospect, there were probably myriad other problems that had not been addressed, and were manifesting themselves.
I had gone to school in Dubuque, Iowa, a little over an hour’s drive away from my hometown in rural Illinois. On a Saturday evening, my mother made the trek to pick me up, bringing me back home to the apartment we had lived in since the beginning of 1998, where I would stay until Sunday, when she would return me to campus.
It was during this time, in the fall, and into the winter of 2001, that my mother was romantically involved with a man who lived3 in Montana. Prior to my returning home for this one weekend, she had taken a trip out West to stay with him for a week or two.
And it was shortly after we had arrived back in Freeport, Illinois, that she implored me to look at a collection of photos she had taken while in Montana. “Don’t you think it looks nice out there?” she asked me, with something in her voice that suggested something much, much larger was coming.
She then explained that, while she was out West, this man she was involved with at this time, had asked her to move out there; she told him she would think about it.
In November, when I returned for Thanksgiving break, there were moving boxes in the hallway.
In December, and into January, I spent my days sorting and packing—deciding what would be taken back to college with me, crammed into the dark reaches of my dorm room closet, what would be packed away in a storage shed that had been rented, thrown out, or to be sold in a multi-day moving sale.
The reason Clarity and Bleed American, and Emotion is Dead for that matter, are all so deeply embedded within me is because of how much time I spent in the car over that long holiday break—early morning drives from Freeport, onto Highway 20, to the outskirts of Rockford, the next largest town, to take my mother to work, so that I could use the car during the day to run errands—then the same drive, in the late afternoon, to pick her up.
I can remember letting myself get wrapped up in the unabashed emotion of “Your House,” and “If You Don’t, Don’t”; I can recall immersing myself almost completely in Clarity, turning up the volume, and destroying the speakers of her 1996 Chevy Cavalier, as the torrential double shot of “Just Watch The Fireworks” and “For Me, This is Heaven,” washed over me.
Based on the reaction Clarity received upon its release, you could say that it’s an album that requires patience; it was an album that required patience in 2001, when I fell in love with it.
It’s a record that requires patience now, 20 years later, when I am nearly 36 years old.
It’s over an hour long—they tell you this right out of the gate, though; the album’s running time is printed in parenthesis on the CD—tucked behind one of Clarity’s most enduring and possibly most important lyrics: “Can you still feel the butterflies?”
It opens with a slow burn, near the middle it explodes with a cathartic track that clocks in at seven minutes, and it closes with “Goodbye Sky Harbor,” a moderately self-indulgent, though surprisingly poignant conclusion that runs 16 minutes in length.
It’s the kind of fearless, borderline experimental and artistically leaning alternative rock music that Jimmy Eat World wouldn’t really make again—maybe they didn’t want to; or maybe they couldn’t.
Clarity isn’t a perfect album. I never said it was. From beginning to end, it works as a whole, sure, but there are huge ebbs and flows with moments that are more successfully executed than others—it doesn’t so much buckle under its own ambitions as it nears the end, but like so many albums, it is frontloaded with its most energetic material, before it dips into arguably its best and most pensive, then tucking the less compelling near the finish.
If I were ever in a position where I needed to put together a list of my top five ‘side ones, track ones,’ “Table For Glasses” would be on it, without a doubt. Rarely do you hear an opening track that strikes this perfect balance of tension and release the way it does—it’s orchestrated to be too grand, and too epic, to fail.
“Sweep the dirty stairs—the ones I waited on,” the song begins, with the layered vocals of both Tom Linton and Jim Adkins4. “This is just for me. I felt it watching her.” The song’s lyrics have always been evocative, yet ambiguous enough—like the whisper of a secret that you are almost able to hear. “Table For Glasses,” is allegedly about Adkins watching what was, more or less, a piece of performance art in Phoenix, Arizona—a woman swept the steps outside of an art gallery with the bottom of her dress, then proceeded to brush the dirt into empty glasses that were on top of a candle lit table.
I only recently learned this now—like, in preparation to reflect on Clarity upon this anniversary; I’ve spent the last 18 years always curious about what “Table For Glasses” was about. And woven within these vague statements, rich with imagery, are very literal interpretations and responses to what Adkins was witnessing. And when you think about it that way, the layered vocals at the end make a lot of sense—“Not asking of me anything. Saying nothing about what it means. Without anybody telling me how I should feel.”
“Table For Glasses” begins simply—with a long, organ drone, before the snare hits and ride cymbal come tumbling in, setting the rhythm; from there, the song just continues to build, and build, until it really has no other choice than to explode, and then resolve, serving as the thesis statement for Clarity as a whole; it sets the tone, letting the listener know just how, at times, visceral the album is going to be, and how the band is going to walk that line between dynamics.
There are a handful of other songs scattered throughout Clarity that reach the same kind of emotional heights as “Table For Glasses”—and those are the songs, I would say, are the ones that time has been kindest too, and the ones that are key moments within the album’s structure; some of them arriving before the halfway point, and others, coming as Clarity begins its final descent.
Jimmy Eat World is still active today, releasing their most recent effort, Integrity Blues, in 2016—but the band that wrote and recorded Clarity and the band that has churned out five additional full-lengths since their commercial breakthrough in 2001 are not the same thing.
I hesitate they are a band of diminishing returns, but beginning with Futures, released in October of 2004, the same day as Elliott Smith’s posthumous album From A Basement on A Hill, I found myself identifying with the band itself less and less, though still holding onto—with maybe slightly less of a tight grip—Clarity.
Futures has a very dark song, buried at the halfway mark, simply titled “Drugs”—lyrically stark, Adkins rarely goes on record discussing what any of the band’s songs are really about. His explanation of “Table For Glasses,” is, I guess, rare. As rare are these very dark currents that occasionally flow through the Jimmy Eat World canon. “Drugs,” thematically at least, shares a strong connection with “A Sunday,” the fifth track on Clarity, and what begins an impressive six song run that teeters on flawlessness.
“A Sunday” begins with, and continues to make use of, a melody that is played, rather whimsically, on chimes—creating a very startling juxtaposition with Adkin’s lyrics—“Learn as the drugs leave/Learn as you lose it—you will,” and the line that serves as the song’s refrain—raw and belted out by Adkins: “The haze clears from your eyes on a Sunday.”
If the whimsies of the chimes that begin and end the song serve as a contrast to the lyrics, the chimes also serve as a contrast to the explosive beginning to “Crush.”
At one point, I saw this track listed with a title of “(Secret) Crush.” Even if that was wishful thinking on some Jimmy Eat World fan site in the early 2000s, it’s probably the most ‘emo’ piece on Clarity, both in its unrelentingly bombastic arranging, as well as its lyrical content. It’s also one of the most straightforward songs on the album; it describes an actual romantic crush—“My lungs are so numb from holding back.”
I said that this run of six songs ‘teetered’ into flawlessness—the one time it falters, slightly, is when the pacing is brought to a near halt with “12.23.95.” This was, if I recall correctly, the only song that Mike didn’t like on Clarity, simply because of how repetitive it is, and he has a valid point. It is, more or less, the same drum machine beat, the same time-stretched, reversed electric guitar sound, along with the same little synth blips and slight guitar string plucking. On top of all of that, are the few, very fragmented lyrics—many of them just the repeated phrase, “Merry Christmas, baby.”
But, despite how repetitive it is, you do need this song that you could, if you wanted to, look at as an interlude.
One of the reasons I bought a hard copy of Clarity, from Sam Goody or Musicland or whatever in the St. Cloud, Minnesota mall shortly before New Year’s Eve 2001, was because I liked the album enough to warrant having a real copy of it, but more importantly, I wanted a copy that was not interrupted by the two seconds of silence placed in between the tracks on the CD-R I had made.
“Crush” and “12.23.95” seamlessly blend into one another—and that two seconds in between the tracks felt like an eternity. And even though I don’t they really do blend together seamlessly, there is little breathing room between the end of “12.23.95” and “Ten.”
Of all the songs in this sequence of material, I feel like “Ten” is probably the one that may be at the most risk for being forgotten about, or lost in the shuffle. It’s one of the most understated musically—strong rhythmically but not overbearing, powered by acoustic guitar strums and Adkins’ very dramatic delivery of the lyrics—especially the way he goes for it on the song’s layered refrain: “Could you look in my eyes and blame no one.”
“Ten” is one of the many songs on Clarity that feature key lyrics—the kind of expressions that stick with you long after the album has done, or long after you have grown out of the ‘emo’ phase of your life. Here, it’s the couplet that arrives at the end of the first verse—“Meet me with a way out through the lies—nowhere, going nowhere, in the fake yellow light.”
“Just Watch The Fireworks” is the kind of song you put on mixtapes (or CDs if you were advanced enough) to try to impress a girl.
That’s not even really a thing anymore, is it? Like, that’s not a thing that young men and women do for one another—make tapes or CD mixes that try to convey something, like emotions, or some kind of secret, or even just to be like, ‘Hey, I like these songs and I hope you do too.’
“Just Watch The Fireworks,” a startling, visceral seven minutes, is the kind of thing I’d put into a mix—never at the beginning; more than likely near the end. It’s a breathless song that continues to build until it becomes almost too much. Unlike the tension and release of “Table For Glasses,” there is no resolve here. The song reaches the point where it can’t become any more powerful than it has, and it somewhat quickly, winds itself down.
“Fireworks” is one of the handful of songs on Clarity that incorporate a small string accompaniment. The album isn’t poorly mixed—it’s a little on the raw side sometimes, but that lends itself well to the material. Specifically on a song like this, where you can actually feel the band’s drummer, Zach Lind, pummeling away on his kit. The strings, however, can be a little buried sometimes, especially when the song simply becomes too much—just rippling below the surface, fighting to try and get above the torrent of two electric guitars, and Adkins wail.
Giving little, if any, room to recover, “For Me, This is Heaven” is probably the album’s definitive track—not just because of the lyric printed on the CD itself, or the other iconic, enduring, and endearing lyrics, but because of the way the impassioned lyrics are married into the swooning, swaying, and layered musical arrangement. If a song like “Crush” is the most ‘emo,’ “For Me, This is Heaven” is the most emotional by far.
I’ve never read A Prayer For Owen Meany—or any John Irving, for that matter. But it’s this book, or at least ideas and phrases from it, that are lifted and used in the small amount of lyrics that make up Clarity’s self-indulgent though hypnotic closing track, the 16 minute “Goodbye Sky Harbor.”
The song ‘proper’ is a little over three minutes in length, ending with a short reflection Adkins allegedly wrote while on a plane leaving the Phoenix, Arizona airport—Sky Harbor International—“So here I am, above palm tress, so straight an tall. You are getting smaller—getting smaller, but I still see you.”
The next nine minutes, give or take, find the band playing the same thing, as their voices, layered and wordlessly singing, slowly overtake the music that begins receding. “Sky Harbor” then takes a surprising turn—one that still surprises me now, 18 years after I first heard it. First, a percussive ripple begins to roll through the band’s voices, until that ripple begins to grow, and grow, exploding into a cacophony of reversed bells and chimes—echoing the instrumentation found in both “A Sunday,” as well as on “Table For Glasses”—and a propulsive drum machine.
As jubilant of a moment as it provides, “Goodbye Sky Harbor,” far, far away from how it began, and even how we got here in the first place, takes another turn with only seconds remaining, as the bells and chimes begin to slow to a molasses up a hill crawl—creating an unsettling, dissonant feeling that is the last thing you hear before the album concludes.
When the time we have now ends…
There are albums that you take with you—that grow with you, from the time you discovered them, into adulthood. There are albums that you leave behind—the things you outgrow, and can no longer see yourself in.
Clarity is a unique album in the sense that it’s not a record that I sit down and listen to regularly—in a way, it is something that I left behind, but I also recognize its importance: to the band and what they would become, to contemporary popular music, and to me, as an 18 year old who saw himself in these songs for so many years after it was first slid across a cafeteria table and handed to me.
It hasn’t grown with me—this isn’t ‘emo music for adults5,’ but much to my surprise, it is something that I have taken with me through time.
In 2009, in celebration of the album’s tenth anniversary, Jimmy Eat World went on a short tour where they played Clarity from beginning to end, as bands are wont to do, as well as reissuing it on vinyl. With the actual twentieth anniversary date having come and gone now, I get the impression the band is not interesting in repeating this for 2019.
Clarity represents a moment in time—for the band, there are hints of things to come in the songs that have a harder, more straightforward ‘rock’ edge, like “Your New Aesthetic,”6 and the titular track, as well as hints of the knack for infectiousness, like Clarity’s single, “Lucky Denver Mint.”
I lost touch with Mike within my second year of college. He moved back to Madison, Wisconsin, and there was a point when we were going to try and see The Juliana Theory perform in early 2003, in support of their major label debut, Love, but tickets sold out too quickly.
We’re Facebook friends—like so many people are today; still connected but not really. He’s rarely on it, I think, only popping up once a year to thank folks for birthday greetings. I don’t know what he’s up to now, or if he still listens to this album, and if he does, if it takes him back to his own moment in time.
A moment can last so much longer than ‘a moment.’ My moment in time with Clarity is so much more than that first listen, near the end of 2001. It’s long drives back and forth on a stretch of Highway 20 across Northwestern Illinois; it’s a cold winter and a lot of uncertainty; it’s mixtapes and CDs, and nights in a dimly lit dorm room during my final year of college, playing air guitar along with this album because when you’re 21 and there’s still a lot of uncertainty, it’s all you can do.
And when you’re pushing 40, you don’t really still feel the butterflies, but you remember them anyway.
Leave my skeptic sight to the table and the lights….
1- As mentioned near the tail end of this piece, the ‘big things’ allude to The Juliana Theory leaving the independent label their first two albums were issued through, and signing with Epic Records—a deal that turned out to be rather ill fated for them, since the record, Love, released in early 2003, was met with little promotion from the label, and the band left Epic by the time they released their next record.
2- Following the ‘September 11th’ attacks, it was determined that the term ‘Bleed American’ was insensitive in the tumultuous times the nation found itself in. The album was reissued with the title removed—it was re-titled Jimmy Eat World, and the opening, titular track, was re-titled “Salt, Sweat, Sugar.” In 2008, when the album was reissued with supplemental material, it was deemed that America was ready again for it to return to its original title.
3- This is moderately difficult to explain how a woman who lived in Illinois was involved with someone who lived in Montana, but she, at this time, was working within the trucking industry.
4- It seems worth mentioning that in the early days of Jimmy Eat World, Adkins and Linton shared singing duties, but Clarity is the first time that Adkins was the primarily vocalist, with Linton taking the lead on only one song.
5- It’s though to explain but the band American Football—specifically their 2016 and the forthcoming 2019 albums (both self-titled)—are excellent examples of ‘emo music for adults.’
6- In college, I met someone who introduced me to a demo/early version of “Your New Aesthetic,” released the year prior to Clarity; it’s a dramatically different arrangement, which makes it a completely different version than what the band wound up turning it into on the album.