Review Summary: We build, we box, we carry on...
We should all be thankful that musical taste is, for the most part, a malleable construct. Without an open mind or a willingness to try new things, we might not discover an artist through Internet word-of-mouth or witness a band start from humble beginnings at a Battle of the Bands competition and end up on active rock radio. As our listening habits begin to take shape and our preferences crystallize, old standbys are passed over and perhaps forgotten about after some time.
But then there are bands that you've grown up with, where membership changes have been rare, if not completely non-existent. The Gaslight Anthem might be one personal pick, but The '59 Sound
in 2008 wasn't nearly as personally meaningful to me as Bleed American
was in 2002. In high school, "The Middle" was our sitcom's theme song in our video production class, and singing the "Whoa-ohh-oh-oh-ohh"s from "Sweetness" was (and still is) always invigorating. This spirit might also explain why I have a longstanding admiration for the American Pie
, and other similar titles. As dickish as some of those characters were, there was a palpable level of heart, charm, and kindness exhibited throughout those stories: Stifler's heart shone through, Jim realized that Michelle was who he wanted to be with, Seth showcased the power of loyalty and friendship despite Evan's truth of omission -- you get the idea. Watching these relationships progress and flourish - with varying levels of exposition - is a true highlight.
The same can be said about Jimmy Eat World's hallmark power-pop/rock sound, which the Mesa, Arizona-based quartet has cultivated, honed, and perfected to the tune of nearly 20 years. Admittedly, my start with the band begins with Bleed American
, so I can't stake claim to being the biggest Jimmy Eat World historian (full disclosure: I really enjoyed Chase This Light
more than Invented
, so my credibility might be compromised in your mind as well). With Damage
, their trademark sound - glorious, celebratory choruses, huge hooks and radiant melodies, anthemic and immediately-relatable lyrics, a sturdy rhythm section - is on full display, with a near-perfect balance of crunching guitar-driven songs that are interspersed by the band's requisite mollifying and soothing ballads. While it would have been rewarding to hear some heavier-tinged songs (like Futures
' "Nothingwrong" or Chase This Light
's "Firefight") or an epic like Clarity
's "Goodbye Sky Harbor" again, they would likely sound out of place on Damage
, so it's an understandable omission.
The 1-2 punch of "Appreciation" and "Damage" are superb choices for album openers. I'm a firm believer in at least the first song of a record setting the tone for what's to come, and "Appreciation" succeeds at every facet. Its chorus is positively sublime - the lead guitar in the song's undercurrent is very subtle, and the song's transition from chorus to effect-laden bridge to guitar solo and back to the climactic final chorus is one of the more remarkable and distinguished sections in the band's recent discography. The lead and rhythm guitars are wonderfully effective and are complemented well by a steadfast rhythm section, and as is Jimmy Eat World tradition, Jim Adkins' lyrics have an almost-universal pull to them. "We build, we box, we carry on / As people we forgot," he laments in the song's otherwise blithe-sounding chorus, adding, "Strange we come to find ourselves / Not knowing we're lost". Much like the dichotomy of good vs. evil and the former triumphing over the latter, the story of falling in and out of love is an accessible and readily-available topic that we all can identify with to some degree. To that end, Adkins does a masterful job in establishing the pain and anguish associated with the realization that who you fell in love with then isn't the same person anymore. "Damage" continues this story arc somewhat, this time asking if the relationship is worth salvaging ("Of everything you say, it's the truth that really hurts, but how could that be worse? / Are we only damaging the little we have left?"). Furthermore, with the layered vocals, the title track arguably sports the record's catchiest chorus, even though the song's heartbreak is promptly discernible. Despite the somber motif, the guitars and especially Rick Burch's bass and Zach Lind's drums sound eminently bright and organic. Considering how nothing digital was used in the album's recording process, Alain Johannes deserves acknowledgment as Damage
's producer, as his marvelous skill helps make the record sound vibrant and colorful, even during the album's bleaker or more sorrowful subjects.
Other album highlights include the radio-ready "I Will Steal You Back" and its eloquent not-ready-to-admit-defeat premise and "No, Never", which brings to mind a mix between Bleed American
's "The Authority Song" and Clarity
's "Lucky Denver Mint" but with an understandable amount of songwriting seasoning added. Both songs are aided by Tom Linton and Adkins' perpetually-reliable guitar collaboration, expertly feeding off one another's songwriting. "You Were Good" is also a solid choice for an album closer in that it sounds most unlike the album's first nine songs, as if it were recorded outside a studio setting. The song is a relatively stripped-down number, akin to the slower songs on Butch Walker's I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
record, and is a captivating listen for this reined-in arrangement. Also featuring an organ and e-bow guitar part, Adkins recorded both the vocals and acoustic parts at the same time in studio, which is considerably impressive.
Just as listeners can expect Jimmy Eat World's aforementioned signature sound, the same faults can be anticipated as well. Specifically, the ballads continue to falter - "Please Say No" features a stalwart supporting cast, but quickly turns monotonous with the lackadaisical what-could-have-been, what-will-be tale. "Byebyelove", while engaging at first, meanders on at an infuriatingly plodding pace despite Lind's bombastic percussion. "Book of Love" and "Lean" are also passable but skippable songs - both have adequate energy, but lack the dynamic range and illustrious hooks that force you to listen intently to the nuances Jimmy Eat World typically incorporates into their songs. Additionally, it's on these tracks where Adkins' wobbly vocals, namely his higher register, sound more strained than the lyrics appear to indicate. However, more often than not, he delivers an extraordinary performance, especially on "Appreciation", "You Were Good", "How'd You Have Me", and especially "Damage".
Looking back, you may not unfailingly remember specific people or memories to the last detail, but you will always recall a general sense of how you felt. At just ten tracks, Damage
is like those fleeting summer flings in adolescence: no matter how transient those relationships were, there's a certain level of gratitude for the people you were with, a gratefulness for what you learned from them, and a recognition that you discovered something about yourself. Those memories may come and go, but songs like "Appreciation", "Damage", "I Will Steal You Back", and "No, Never" have definitive staying power long after the album ends, and "You Were Good" ends the proceedings on an appropriately sentimental note. Whether you decide that Damage
tells a story or that it's a set of 10 unrelated songs is irrelevant: the thoughts, feelings, and emotions integrated throughout the record are effectual at any chronological age, but it's this sanguine air of acceptance that's juxtaposed by wistful nostalgia that makes the record so compelling. For good reason, we all gravitate to songs like Futures
' closer "23" and how we won't always live in our regrets because we all cling on to hope for the future. In parallel, Damage
's looking-back allows us to assimilate its comfortable imagery to our lives, reminding us that the wisdom we gain from relationships results from experiencing the highs and lows that come with them. Eight albums into their career, Jimmy Eat World still know how to generate and craft some brilliant songs, but most importantly, they continue to demonstrate a keen sense for how to connect with any audience.
"I Will Steal You Back"