One often associates independent music with the dark-rimmed-glasses, Converse-All-Star rocking kids trying to stay as far away from the trends of pop culture as possible. But in truth, just as the radio waves have been congested with the pure pop hits of ‘Nsync and Britney Spears, the world of indie rock has not exactly remained unchanged by this shift towards a brighter aesthetic.
Jimmy Eat World’s newest album, Bleed American, is no exception to this rule. The four Arizona natives have left their punk roots, much as similar bands like The Promise Ring and Rainer Maria have done in recent years. But unlike the bubblegum-pop-esque path The Promise Ring has chosen, Jimmy Eat World has progressed toward something a little more sophisticated.
Music critics like to describe bands of this vein with the overused moniker “emo”, a genre used to encompass all bands that play rock music that isn’t quite alternative, punk, hardcore, or pop, but consists of all of these elements. The first four songs on Bleed American are actually a perfect illustration of this eclecticism. The opening track, which shares the same title as the album, sounds like something off an old Jawbox album. The growling bass and heavy guitar make it the hardest song on the album. The second track, “A Praise Chorus,” is a sort of coming-of-age pop-punk anthem that features The Promise Ring lead man, Davey vonBohlen on backing vocals. “The Middle,” the albums third track, is the feel-good hit of the summer, with lines reminiscent of daily affirmation tapes (“just try your best/try everything you can/and don’t you worry what they tell themselves”). The poppish sound that Jimmy Eat World seems to be looking for is fully realized on “Your House,” the first ? but not last ? song on the album to employ an acoustic guitar. Lyrically, this poignant track is the typical story of unfulfilled love. Yet in the upbeat tone of the music there exists a refreshingly innocent hopefulness that allows the listener to empathize with the plight of the singer instead of simply writing off the song as yet another example of the oldest trick in the pop-music bag.
A couple of the more subdued tracks, “Hear You Me” and “My Sundown,” come dangerously close to sappy, with loads of female backing vocals and piano, but they provide the perfect moment to put the spotlight on how much lead singer Jim Adkins’ vocal capabilities have improved since the band’s pop-punk debut album in 1994. Gone is the scratchy half-screaming, half-singing style that befitted the edgier sound of their first few albums, clearing the way for the pristine intonations that complement the polished production of Bleed American.
The only miss on this album is “Get it Faster,” which starts with some creepy unidentifiable noises and only goes downhill from there with bland instrumentation and whiny lyrics (“I don’t care what you do/I’m getting out. . ./ I want to do right by you/but I’m finding out that cheating gets it faster”). There’s not much thought in any element of the song; instead, the listener hears nothing but a lot of noisy complaining that does not suit the album’s overall aim. It is, however, followed by “Cautioners,” a track that best exemplifies the giant steps this band has taken toward maturity. It is, all around, a well-constructed song great use of sequencing and backing vocals.
Bleed American seems to be an introspective look at where Jimmy Eat World has been, and where they are going. The album has its moments of unadulterated fun, like the almost overly poppish “Authority Song,” which includes shakers and handclaps. But there are also some slow pauses for reflection, such as in the album-closing “My Sundown,” the most introspective song on the album (“I could be so much more than this/said my goodbyes/this is my sundown”). Instead of making this an album that strives for a consistent sound, the group has opted to show the often-unseen versatility that simple pop music can achieve. All together, Bleed American is an album with something for almost all listeners.