Artist: Jimmy Eat World
Album: Integrity Blues
In Brief: Put quite simply, a strong pop/rock record with confident hooks and melodies, and intriguing, often heartfelt lyrics. Unlike their last few albums, it doesn’t need to prove that it’s in any way raw, experimental, or revolutionary. It’s simply Jimmy Eat World doing what they do best, and it’s the best they’ve done since Futures.
How would you define artistic integrity? For me that’s a tricky question, the answer to which is difficult to put into words. I feel like a lot of us music aficionados know in our gut when it’s been violated, though – when an artist has “sold out”. We don’t all agree with each other on this point, of course, but it’s one of the most visceral reactions a listener can have. I personally never had that reaction to Jimmy Eat World‘s music, but that’s quite possibly because I got into the band with the release of Bleed American (and yes, I still call it that despite the post-9/11 name change), a record which broke them through to the mainstream, and which fans of their independently released work (especially their acclaimed late 90s album Clarity) tended to see as a definite turn toward middle-of-the-road pop/rock music. Can one make great, artistically sound music within the mainstream? As bored as I’ve been with most of what the mainstream has had to offer since around the turn of the century, I’d actually still say “yes”. I feel like artistic integrity means making the music you want to make regardless of whether it will sell millions or whether it will only appeal to a small, devoted cult following. If it happens to get popular, I see no reason to scorn that, but there’s a certain intangible quality to it that has to feel organic rather than calculated. Trying to re-engineer the same atmosphere that gave you your first big hits will often lead to a tepid response, at least from me. But trying to completely change it up and prove to people that you’re something you’re really not can be hazardous, too. It’s a fine line to walk.
Jimmy Eat World may never ride high on the charts again the way they did with their biggest singles from Bleed American and Futures. And for a few albums there, I kind of questioned whether they were trying to prove something, either to the mainstream who wanted their music to be poppier (see Chase This Light) or to the old-school fans who wanted something a little rawer (see Damage), or to… well, whatever mixed bag of people they expected to respond to Invented. All three of those records were a bit tedious to me – there’s a reason I haven’t bothered to do an in-depth review of anything they’ve done since Futures, over a decade ago. Nothing on those albums was bad enough for me to outright mock it, but I just didn’t feel the same sense of intrigue listening to most of the songs on those records – I’d snag a worthy single or two for mixtape inclusion, and promptly forget the rest.
But I feel like the band has undergone a bit of a career renaissance with their latest album, Integrity Blues. The core question behind it seems to be, why do we keep doing what we’re doing as a band, and do we want to keep doing it even if it doesn’t get the overwhelmingly massive response it used to? It’s emphatically not a reinvention of their sound – I don’t hear any obvious gimmicks here, and even when programmed or synthetic elements start to creep into their otherwise very basic guitar/bass/drums lineup (as they have on occasion before), it feels like an accent and not an attempt to hog the spotlight by making a sudden turn into some other genre. I wouldn’t say that anything here is as blatantly catchy as “The Middle”, as heavy and gritty as “Pain”, or as long-winded and exploratory as “Goodbye Sky Harbor” – all excellent track picks from their past discography. But this is a pretty darn solid collection of songs, that feels cohesive without feeling like the band is doing the same thing over and over for 11 tracks. A lot of it is instantly relatable, too – Jim Adkins has a knack for adding just the right tinge of brokenheartedness to an otherwise straightforward pop song, just as easily as he can add a bit of creepy venom to a heavier or more haunting one. When I first got into the band, I felt like they approached incredibly broad topics such relationships and personal struggles with enough insight and bits of clever phrasing here and there to make a lot of their musings intriguing, and that’s the ingredient that was either missing on the albums in between then and now, or else the performances just didn’t come alive enough for me to notice it. That problem has largely been solved, and because of it, despite the album not doing a whole lot that most music critics would consider surprising, Integrity Blues has managed to snag a spot in my favorite albums at 2016, right at the bitter end of the year.
1. You with Me
I love the way that this opening track takes flight, with the simple acoustic guitars ringing out into the atmosphere, then the vocals coming in, then the programmed drums, and finally the full band. This one was clearly designed to work as both an album opener and a concert opener, and it does such a great job of getting me pumped for what’s to come. It’s a rhythmic track with an exceedingly strong melody and just the right balance between “wall of sound” and a few more spacious moments for the listener to catch their breath. As for the lyrics, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better spin on the old tired catchphrase “It’s not you, it’s me.” A couple is clearly trapped in DTR mode, asking questions they can’t really answer over and over, and Jim seems to finally come to the realization that it’s not really either person’s fault, nor is one person the sole reason why they’re not working out. It’s not you, it’s not me… is it you with me? It’s a subtle but effective bit of wordplay in a song that does a great job of communicating how sometimes two great people just don’t make a great couple, no matter how hard they may try to make it work.
2. Sure and Certain
More muscular guitar riffs come into play on the second track, which was an easy choice for a first single due to the immediate nature of both its guitar and vocal hooks. Structurally this one’s pretty simple, with some regretful lyrics about waiting for the perfect moment leading up to a chorus that basically implies waiting for total certainty will leave us too paralyzed to make any progress. The song itself almost threatens to rest on a comfortable, but somewhat predictable, melodic pattern until it gets to the bridge, which rises beautifully to its climax on some fiery guitars. To me that’s what sets well-made pop/rock music apart from the average stuff. Writing a simple, catchy song is easy, but writing a simple song that does a little something like that to put some spice on it and get the listener pumped to come right back around to that repetitive chorus one last time takes a little bit of genius.
3. It Matters
This slower track, which features the keyboard prominently and has some of the most melodramatic lyrics Jimmy Eat World has ever put to tape, could have easily veered off into an 80s-style pastiche, which is the sort of thing a lot of bands (including several that I enjoy) love to do these days. But Jimmy manages to stay grounded – maybe it’s the even more prominent drums and melodic guitars keeping it firmly in “live band” territory, or maybe it’s the way you can hear the hints of vulnerability in Jim’s vocals, which hit just the right balance between robust and fragile, as if he’s almost about to break down but he’s managing to hold it together. This one’s got a pretty devastating lyric about a love that has grown cold, and two people continually pulling away from each other instead of talking about the stuff that’s getting in the way or making any real attempts to romance each other like they used to. Jim sounds like a man trapped in a fate that he can’t seem to will himself to break out of. The way he accentuates and sustains certain notes really maximizes the gut punch. And yet the melody goes down so smoothly and effortlessly. Pair this one with The 1975‘s much more deliberately 80s-inspired “Somebody Else” for maximum heartbreak.
4. Pretty Grids
This one seems to exist mostly to keep the momentum going – I think it follows a thread similar to “Sure and Certain”, in terms of acting without overthinking things when it comes to relationship. it just doesn’t send as strong of a lyrical message as the past three songs. I like the strong drumbeat (Jimmy is really killing it with the rhythmic leads on these tracks so far, even though they’re not doing anything technically all that complicated), and the brooding bass and keyboards behind it. it’s interesting how the thick, and slightly ominous atmosphere disspiates for a moment of acoustic clarity (ha) during the bridge. It’s not a track I find myself wanting to come back to as often as the last three, but it’s still a solid listen.
5. Pass the Baby
In terms of creatively surprising us, this might be one of a small handful of Jimmy Eat World tracks where you can’t predict the outcome from the way it begins. it’s definitely one of their most electronic and experimental pieces, almost flying under the radar at first due to Jim almost whispering the lyrics in a semi-threatening manner, and the electronic bass and drums hissing and crackling underneath. It’s setting itself up to be a dark and mysterious track in the vein of “Get It Faster” or “Night Drives”… you can tell this is going to boil over at some point. But the way it actually accomplishes this, with a bit of feedback suddenly exploding into a heavy guitar breakdown at a different tempo from the rest of the song, is jarring enough at first that I actually thought Spotify had mislabeled two separate tracks as one continuous one. Nope, it’s all the same song, and the startling change of pace is quite deliberate. It puts an alarming exclamation mark on a track that will no doubt fuel a lot of speculation regarding its meaning. The chorus is just a single line – “No they won’t shoot, you pass the baby here”. But it’s baffling enough on its own, to say nothing of the oblique references to corporate greed that seem to be sprinkled throughout.
6. Get Right
Another single released in advance of the album, which of course means more straightforward rock goodness – while I tend to prefer the more exploratory stuff, I can’t deny that Jimmy needed a few tracks like this to hook some of their lapsed fans right away, and it’s a pretty effective way of doing so. The lean & mean guitar riffs propel things along nicely until the chorus can bring the heavier drums down on the listener. The lyrics seem to be an honest self-examination of the need to always ‘get away” that’s been romanticized over in over in a lot of escapist rock music. We’re starting to see the overall theme of Integrity Blues come into play here at the midway point – keeping yourself honest and confronting the faults and issues in a relationship often means making things uncomfortable for both parties, when our first instinct is instead to stay cozy by making some space between us and the problem.
7. You Are Free
Another well-worn cliché that Jimmy breathes a bit more life into here is “If you love someone, set them free”. Depending on how you present this sentiment, it can feel like it should have been a no-brainer, but with the straightforward an elegant approach the band takes here (which, much like “It Matters” but far less sad, is based largely around the drums and piano), it comes across more like an epiphany. There’s a certain grace in the act of letting go here, not just cutting someone loose, but actively telling them that they are free to be who they actually want to be, instead the square peg forced into the round hole of someone else’s identity. Sometimes a simple line speaks volumes: “You are free, and it’s anything you think that means.” There’s a certain sense of relief to this song, as if a doomed couple has finally let go of their obligation to each other, and can now explore what they were meant to be before they sidetracked each other. It’s a small thing, but I really appreciate Tom Linton‘s backing vocals here. He rarely gets a lead vocal these days, but his assists on choruses like these really help them to stand out.
8. The End Is Beautiful
The swaying rhythm and graceful melody of this one come dangerously close to swiping a few emotional beat from Jimmy Eat World’s now-classic “Hear You Me”. I can’t listen to this one and not hear that one in my mind somewhere. Not that it’s a total ripoff of their own song… the constant strumming of the acoustic guitar helps to set it apart, as do Jim’s warm reflections on the ending of a relationship (rather than the ending of a life, at least if I’m interpreting it correctly). This seems to be the point where the actual breakup happens, and rather than it flaming out in some sort of a messy argument or a tossed-off text message, he seems dedicated to giving them one last beautiful moment together, and asssuring her, “It doesn’t have to hurt any more.” Of course, being charming in this manner right when you realize a relationship needs to end could lead to the temptation to not end it after all. But if it’s one last olive branch to the person he knows is ready to let him go, then maybe this is the best way to cushion the blow for both of them.
One last rocker here, before the albums winds down with a few slower tracks. While it’s a bit awkwardly phrased, I enjoy the mature resolve that’s expressed in this song, reaffirming that the only way out of a painful situation is to go through it (again – old cliché, decent attempt at a new spin on it). The wrong ways to deal with heartbreak are set up in the verses: “Go get mad, have a child’s tantrum/’Til everyone knows how wronged you’ve been”. Then the chorus defies them all: “Look around, that’s not me/Not one shred of who I’ll be.” The energy here reminds me of similar late-album tracks like “If You Don’t, Don’t” or “Polaris”, that might not have been immediate standouts, but that did a good job of revving the energy back up before an album’s more pensive conclusion.
10. Integrity Blues
I’ll be honest and say that I feel like the title track is this album’s weakest link. I think it does a good job of expressing the sentiment behind the entire album (as a good title track should), finding our recently-single protagonist in a state of being completely alone and confronting what kind of man he’s going to be when no else else is watching his every move. Definitely a good “Who you are in the dark” sort of meditation, admirably delivered with a solid vocal performance on Jim’s part. I’m just not sure how I feel about the only backing music being a horn and string ensemble. It’s certainly daring, and unlike anything Jimmy Eat World has tried before. It gives the album a feeling of coming to a graceful conclusion, even though we’ve still got one more track to go. It just seems a bit muted compared to what they could have done with it, and I’m always a bit uneasy when a composition such as this sidelines the actual members of the band, basically becoming the lead singer’s solo project on an album bearing the band’s name.
11. Pol Roger
The closing track, which has the same epic quality as the Futures finale “23”, gives me a nice little reminder that the title track was not, in fact, intended to be the closer, as the horns pick up beautifully where that track left off, and the ensemble sort of hums along gracefully in the background of this one while the rest of the band gets to play more of a role in making it an effective, emotional slow-burner. Now that the relationship is over and the loose ends have been tied up, the act of getting away from it all is finally appropriate. Somewhere far away, in a ritzy hotel room named for a French champagne, Jim ponders how he and his former lover would have enjoyed this place together, but ultimately arrives at a sense of peace about them being better off apart. The clincher is a single line that demonstrates a wisdom and perspective not often seen in pop and rock music’s multitude of breakup songs: “Are you alone like me? Alone but not lonely.” As the beautiful chorus melody builds to its final climax, the wave crests, and it gradually falls away into the soft, still ocean of the horn and string ensemble, I find myself thinking this is probably the best ending of any Jimmy Eat World album since Clarity.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
You with Me $2
Sure and Certain $1.50
It Matters $1.75
Pretty Grids $1
Pass the Baby $1.75
Get Right $1.50
You Are Free $1.25
The End Is Beautiful $1
Integrity Blues $.75
Pol Roger $1.25
Jim Adkins: Lead vocals, lead guitar
Tom Linton: Rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Zach Lind: Drums, percussion, programming
Rick Burch: Bass, backing vocals
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