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Jimmy Eat World / Clarity / Capitol (1999)


AUDIO: Just Watch the Fireworks
I don't feel guilty for liking Clarity, but I do feel guilty for ranking it in the upper echelon of albums that I own. Even the most hardened soul can acknowledge that Clarity is a better slice of sugary sentimentality than, say, a New Radicals record, but that's just about as much credit as most people will give it. A certain section of the emo population (the one that's currently head over heels for Brand New and Dashboard Confessional) considers this album to be some type of seminal work, but one look at the bands for which it laid the groundwork renders the assertion laughable at best. And yet, it matters not that Clarity is more Goo Goo Dolls than Drive Like Jehu (whose Mark Trombino was saddled with this album's production responsibilities) because in either case it's often considered a sappy, pretentious album, with endless fodder for criticism. Whether you approach it as an underground or mainstream work, it's far from the best that either end of the rock continuum has to offer. The instrumentation is detailed enough and the hooks are subtle enough to explain why the singles weren't fully embraced by rock radio... but did you see how long some of those songs are? And how the phrase "Can you still feel the butterflies" is inscribed on the disc?

It's no wonder that the band experienced their commercial breakout via Bleed American's no-frills four chord power pop; Clarity's mix of edgy octaves and emotional swell was just too awkward and naively confessional for mainstream America to handle. However, it's in this very awkwardness that the album finds its charm -- and that's also the reason why this record carries more emotional resonance than its razor-sharp follow-up.

Given that Clarity fancies itself more of a linear journey than a freeform collage of songs, "Table for Glasses" is an unassuming way to bolt out of the gates -- it hardly "bolts" at all. It requires more patience to sift through this plodding tune than any of the songs that follow it, and while the essential hook (hooks are always essential in the world of Jimmy Eat World) does eventually scurry into the fray, it's not as immediately striking as you'd hope it would be. The real payoff comes in the finale -- a parade of harmonized, layered vocals that Brian Wilson would be proud of. It's the first of many sweeping, orchestral moments, but unlike more indie-leaning fare, Clarity's pretty portions aren't all that rich in instrumentation and depth. What makes them work is their child-like sincerity. Jim Adkins delivers his lyrics with the wonder of someone seeing a sunrise for the first time, and while this may not be as effective as the meditation of a world-traveller who's seen Mt. Everest and the Great Barrier Reef, it forces you to approach the album and its themes with an innocence that you've certainly lost by now. That's truly the only way that it can be enjoyed. Maybe Adkins is making too big of a deal about the fact that "it happens too fast to make sense of it", but it's so true when you really think about it, isn't it?

Less profound but much better written, "Lucky Denver Mint" strikes next, with an inescapable chorus and the lushest production that a driving rock tune could conceivably have. From the drum loop intro to the verse's glossy bassline to the instantly lovable guitar hiccup that precedes the chorus, you'll have to admit that a calculated pop song has never sounded so good -- and once again, Adkins's voice adds the essential human element.

"Your New Aesthetic" and "Do You Believe in What You Want?" come packed with a cynicism not found elsewhere on the album, and considering the course that the band would take a few years later, they also ring with a bitter irony. Both songs cast stones at the heartless, life-sucking giant that is the music industry, biting the major label hand that feeds them with lines like "turn off the radio" and "don't kid yourself, you know they want money". Musically it's also a darker Jimmy Eat World, with all of their angst becoming palpable in the squalling guitars. All the industry sniping probably shot down any chance these songs had at being singles (and they'd have made fine ones, too), but Jimmy Eat World had certainly won the right to take a few shots by that point -- they had to traverse the underground to make up for their label's half-heartedness in working their releases in the mainstream circuit. These songs are ballsy but justified, and at the same time, we see the band's youthful idealism at its greenest -- did they really think they could hang around on a major without eventually getting caught up in the game themselves?

While you might chuckle knowingly at the prospect of another up and coming act thinking they can revolutionize pop music by convincing listeners to pull the plugs on their radios, it's a little tougher to treat a song like "Sunday" so callously. "Sunday" is the antithesis of all other morning after songs; instead of sleeping in past the church bells and patting himself on the back for the keg stand he did at the party last night, Adkins is looking at the new day as some sort of rebirth. He never directly expresses remorse for anything he's done, and he makes no promises never to do those things again, but you get the feeling that's what's going on when he sings about the haze clearing from his eyes and the drugs leaving. He's not proud of that hangover -- in fact, he's exponentially more fascinated by the prospect of starting anew than becoming just another sad victim of excess, though at the same time he doubts that he can really escape what he's gotten himself into. Identifying with Adkins's introspection makes it hard to criticize the song's flowery pageant of plinking keys and nursery rhyme melodies; after all, such contemplation requires a placid backing, and a hummable, thickly layered one at that.

There is one unpardonable moment here -- "12.23.95". There's too much drum machine, the arrangement is too sparse, and the electronic gurgles and blips feel forced, as if the band felt that the album needed an "experiment" or two. Tossing in a few samples and loops for their own sake is the lazy way to experiment, though, ranking right up there with throwing in a string section to make a ballad sound "symphonic" -- a crime the band commits later, on "Just Watch the Fireworks". But where "12.23.95" is a pulseless mess, "Fireworks" is the album's capstone, even if it isn't as textured or deep as it wants to be. Maybe it's the understated melody, maybe it's the image of two kids in love with a moment alone, or maybe the strings actually are appropriate and I'm too jaded by the violins in Collective Soul's "The World I Know" to admit that strings have their place in a pop ballad... Whatever the case, "Fireworks" is sheer magic, and along with the four songs that follow it, it truly defines Clarity.

And what is this record, after all? I might get laughed out of my position at Splendid for saying this, but it's one of those rare albums that truly embodies the spirit of Pet Sounds. Though Pet Sounds is such a seminal work and, even more so, a legitimate but suspiciously typical album to name-drop when asked about your all-time favorites or influences, it's usually its massive harmonies, mono recording technique or eclectic, full-bodied orchestration that are replicated by most bands. Jimmy Eat World seem to have intentionally (or unintentionally -- who knows?) tapped into a different chamber of the heart of Brian Wilson's vision. Like Wilson's masterpiece, Clarity fills your speakers with smart-yet-harmless pop wonder and lyrics that pinpoint the threshold of youth's hope and adulthood's seemingly endless series of let-downs. It can even be argued that the songs emanate the same overpowering sense of love that Wilson's lyrics conveyed -- it's just that after 40 years of destruction and dismemberment, rock and roll is a little too frazzled to embrace these ideals as well as it once could. If Adkins's lyrics were truly weak and wishy-washy and the guitars were completely sapped of their vitality, maybe Clarity could be dismissed as a piece of fluff with delusions of grandeur, but the words hit home with honest signs of struggle and backbone, and the music is lively and intense, even in its most commercial moments. Granted, Clarity's relevance is inversely proportionate to the listener's age, but for anyone on the cusp of adulthood -- or anyone who wants to revisit that period in their life and relive all of the its thunderous emotions and idealism -- it's an album that's almost impossible not to enjoy.

-- Phillip Buchan

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