Review Summary: People tend to “own” songs that not everybody else knows. It’s inherently more acceptable to glean something as a piece of yourself when not everyone shares it, and ironically its way more impactful when you find someone who actually does.
Here’s an important question: how often does a mainstream rock album ever truly RESONATE with people? Moreover, how often does a record that on the surface is clearly designed for commercial airplay ever entrench itself deeply in the souls of a wide-ranging swath of individuals? Sure, “Ok Computer” is a mainstream album (in the sense that everybody has at least heard of it) that people ferociously attach themselves and assign an almost pretentious level of the concept of emotional “depth” to, but that album was written explicitly for that very purpose. Thom Yorke didn’t give a f*ck if he was on the radio; by that time he was championing the persona that he was much cooler because he probably wouldn’t be anymore, and it worked. “Third Eye Blind” and its avalanche of hook-laden hit singles is at a surfaced level merely a more-successful-than-most quintessential 90s alt rock album. Talk to somebody who has never heard the album in its entirety and they might say “Semi-Charmed Life” was a jam back in the day or they once knew a dude who heard “Jumper,” had a moment of clarity, and took the razor away from his veins. In the 90s, radio still mattered, and Third Eye Blind’s lasting reputation is still held aloft by the memories of long-forgotten airwaves and youthful nostalgia. Talk to somebody who has heard the album in its entirety however, and we reach something much deeper, more powerfully trenchant, sometimes even transcendent. There’s a 75% chance that person will tell you it changed their life at best, or it impacted them emphatically at worst. And I’ve finally figured out why.
For all intents and purposes, “Third Eye Blind” was a one-and-done band. I’ll apologize slightly to “Blue,” which was a solid follow up and a few jams like “Blinded” here and “Crystal Baller” there, but they never came close to achieving the commercial success and the impactful, emotional power as their debut. “Third Eye Blind” is that rare achievement in art; the entity that successfully integrates a graceful sense of purpose to the more vapid, empty ideals of commercial viability and accessibility. To put it more bluntly, it was an astonishingly well-executed album that almost anyone could enjoy, but when you peel away the surface of what the record company wanted you to hear, it becomes glaringly obvious this only could have been written by someone who had lived through every impactful youthful experience and was far removed enough to attach a graceful maturity to it. Stephan Jenkins was 33 when this came out, which immediately changes the scope of every one of these songs and explains exactly how and why this is so impactful. The missing link here is nostalgia, but it’s the type that is done with a more all-encompassing, post youthful tawdry-ness viewpoint. More importantly, it has a sense of wisdom to it, a concept that you really don’t identify at first because it’s just there in all of its glory. It grabs you, and although you really can’t explain why a seemingly simple musical format could ever achieve this, anyone who views this album as a piece of them can describe this feeling.
“Semi-Charmed Life” is about sex and crystal meth. Drugs and sex are 2 of the 3 most identifiable pillars of rock n roll (the third being love), and it makes sense that their most commercially successful song would align itself to more than one of the blueprints to success. It’s the most openly radio-friendly song here that has the least amount of depth, but there is just something more to it because Jenkins is not singing from a point of view of someone who is about to go through these things next Friday night. He’s talking about it like it happened 10 years ago. Time does a funny thing to memories; it does more than heal wounds, it makes things seem more poetic and important than they actually were at the time they happened. The same thing can be said about “How’s It Going to Be,” which on the surface is a simple break up song tailor-made for a bands first “ballad” single. It asks a simple question, but a really important one: most of the people you know when you’re young are going to be forgotten (remember this was pre-Facebook), regardless of how often you tell people “dude we’re totally going to stay in touch” at your High School graduation. Jenkins knew better. “How’s It Going to Be” is applicable to any human relationship: most of them are fleeting, and sometimes this is painful. A naïve person does not know this, but someone like Jenkins who had seen more than your average 23 year old alt rock front man absolutely did. “Jumper” doesn’t need much explanation, it was the cherry-picked “deeper” song with a catchy and memorable chorus, and it’s clear Jenkins is personally describing at least 10 people he has known at a somewhat intimate level; the primary reason the song worked so well and is much more important than a Jim Carey meme. Final single “Graduate” is the quintessential loser’s anthem about youthful laziness and apathy, but it’s much more energetic and has a sense of optimism because Jenkins hadn’t had to worry about it in 15 years. The song is more anthemic because there was a sense of accepting and peace to the notion, it almost sounds like he is mocking this “high school” problem as small potatoes in comparison to the greater scope of adult life.
This wisdom or knowing of what adult life actually encompasses leads us to the hidden parts of the record, the segments that are so stunningly powerful that when you first hear them it's astounding the record company ignored them but after a while you’re exceptionally glad they did. People tend to “own” songs not everybody else knows. It’s inherently more acceptable to glean something as a piece of yourself when not everyone shares it, and ironically its way more impactful when you find someone who actually does. “Motorcycle Drive-By,” in my opinion, is the greatest song ever written. I first heard it when I was stunningly, overpoweringly, obsessively, unequivocally infatuated and absolutely TRANSFIXED on a woman who was all kinds of bad for me, a glaringly gorgeous temptress whose graces were more akin to emotional torture, yet I couldn’t stop coming back for more. This song is about that, but it’s a peaceful experience because while Jenkins is mind-blowingly devastated by this figurative woman and his existence is aligned to those great tortured love poets of yore, it feels like he’s writing about her in the past tense even though she is described in the present. The reason is because it is the most hopefully optimistic song about love’s devastation ever made (at least one that doesn’t have its tongue planted in its cheek). “Motorcycle Drive-By” is carried by an exceptional handling of the concept of duality; its gentle acoustics give way to impassioned refrains, and its call-to-arms mantra of “I’ve never been so alone and I’ve never been so alive” is inarguably stunning in its understated yet poetic genius. More than waxing about love lost, it’s about hope, exactly what people need to grasp onto in this vulnerable state that will at one time impact almost every human being on the planet. There’s a reason why “Motorcycle Drive-By” is the song the crowd screams for when Jenkins asks which one he should play. Simply knowing this song forges friendships; there’s a chance you’ll run into somebody at a college party that has been equally impacted and there is a 95% chance you’ll be friends for life. This happens.
“Motorcycle Drive By” is THAT moment for legions of people, and its clear Jenkins takes enormous pride in the song. Having one of these songs on an album with 4 successful lead singles is an achievement, but it’s not even close to stopping there. As powerful as “Motorcycle Drive By” is, there are as many people who are brought to their knees by “The Background” and “God of Wine,” two devastatingly astute songs of loss and vices. Again, neither of these concepts is new to any form of music, but the collision of beautiful intros and impassioned refrains in both meeting astoundingly well placed and relatable lyrics have the same effect as “Motorcycle Drive-By.” These aren’t just songs, they are songs that people claim as their own, and again, bask in a curious sense of joy when meeting a like-minded person. Tracks like “Losing a Whole Year” and “Narcolepsy” follow a similar pattern, albeit both are less emotionally impactful and more sonically catchy. The former was a single that never quite made it but absolutely should have, and the latter is one of the greatest hidden gems in the history of rock.
It seems impossible that Third Eye Blind could pull something like this off. The album is like 4 distinct pillars of life and youth. The singles are batched together, the catchy hidden gems are in alignment, and the closing three songs are what music should be about, at least in alignment of the concept of music being transcendent. I find myself upset at times that Jenkins and company are at a cultural level only known for seemingly vapid hit singles, but then I remind myself that “Motorcycle Drive By” actually got me through an incredibly vexing part of my life, “God of Wine” perfectly chronicled my once devastating drinking habit at a much deeper level, and “The Background” summed up perfectly the poetic feeling of everything I had once loved and lost. I can still jam “Semi-Charmed Life” and remember what it felt like to be 17 and only caring about who was going to buy me beer on Friday, but I’m eternally grateful I found something much more with this album. Listen to it, and there’s a chance it will happen to you.