Jimmy Eat World – Surviving: Do you want the work more than the reward?

Artist: Jimmy Eat World
Album: Surviving
Year: 2019
Grade: B

In Brief: The sound of this album may be straightforward and reinvent zero wheels for Jimmy Eat World, but I can’t argue with the results. They’ve recommitted themselves to being loud, passionate, and unapologetically catchy, with a little room on the side for the occasional ballad or experimental track, and a handful of songs near the end that definitely go the extra mile in terms of delivering the rawk. It’s a strong album in a day and age where solid, straight-ahead rock records are getting harder and harder to come by.


So, I had an entire defense written up, for how a band can still be putting out some of their best material even if they haven’t evolved much stylistically over the years and are still pretty much at the dead center of the spectrum where styles of rock music are concerned. I realized that it wasn’t necessary in Jimmy Eat World‘s case. There’s not much I could say about most of their albums, at least not as a general overview, to tell you how their sound has morphed from one record to the next. This is a band that, for the most part, knows what works for them, and they stick to their guns, and it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect to pull in a lot of curious new fans at this point, but every now and then they come up with something that I think is worth bringing to the attention of folks who enjoyed their music back in the day and simply haven’t kept up. It seemed like the whole world was listening when their 2001 album Bleed American (since renamed as a self-titled, because y’know, 9/11) gave us the inescapably catchy hit singles “The Middle” and “Sweetness”. From 2004’s Futures onward, a lot of fans started to fall off, myself included. But the band really brought me back with their 2016 release, Integrity Blues, and their newest one, Surviving, just about has me convinced that I’m here to stay. There’s nothing radically different here – maybe this album is a bit louder and more riff-heavy than the last one, but it’s still very much in the same wheelhouse as their past several albums. I just think they tried harder in the songwriting department this time around, quite frankly. Song-for-song, Surviving might just be the band’s best record since their early 2000s heyday, even if you’re not going to find an instant success on the order of those old hit singles here.

What’s weird about my experience with Surviving is that I broke my own rule regarding where I prefer to be when I first listen to an album. I usually prefer to take new music in while wearing headphones, or if I’m using a speaker not attached to my head, in the comfort of my own home where I can reasonably control the ambient noise level. Once I’m used to an album and it’s not of the super-mellow variety, I’ll usually give it a few spins in the car to see if it helps perk up the commute, but I definitely don’t start with that. On Surviving‘s release date, I just so happened to be on the final day of a week-long road trip with my family, and I took a chance on it during the afternoon drive back from Santa Barbara to L.A., hoping it would be upbeat and interesting enough to hold my attention after what had already been one too many hours in the car. It’s the rare album that succeeded on that front, largely because most of the stuff you want to pay attention to is right there on the surface – Tom Linton‘s loud and simple but effective riffs, Jim Adkins‘ voice striking the perfect balance between a tough guy exterior and a nice guy who wears his heart on his sleeve once you get to know him, and the rhythm section really standing out to the point where drummer Zach Lind might just be this record’s most valuable asset. You’ve heard this all before, from Jimmy Eat World and probably from a lot of other bands as well. But for a set of songs to stand up to what I call “the car test” when I was previously unfamiliar with most of them is rare. Even on an album that is largely loud and up-tempo, I can get the songs jumbled in my mind when I’m still new to an album, so the fact that things were standing out to me pretty consistently is unusual. I did hear a slight bit of electronic instrumentation here, a more acoustic-based track there, and a few that threw in unexpected instrumental colors here and there, and the record kept me engaged through to the very end. Listening to it again in other environments, where I can pay closer attention to the deeper details of every song, may not have revealed a whole lot going on that I didn’t catch the first time, but the record has certainly held up. I never find myself getting bored with it or wanting to turn it off early, and that had been a problem on even some of my favorite Jimmy Eat World albums in the past. I’m not going to tell you this is a mind-blowing return to form or that it’s likely to make my decade-end best-of list. But it’s a strong rock record in a year where I feel like there’s been a dearth of them, at least among the rock bands I’ve been following in recent years. I think that’s reason enough to feel like Surviving is doing more than its title would imply.

Oh yeah, and the cover art is a maze. An actual one with a beginning, an end, and a possible solution. That has zero bearing on the album’s sound or content, but it’s a fun little detail for a nerd like me who loved mazes as a kid. Anyway… moving on.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Surviving
The title track’s crunchy four-chord riff keeps bouncing around in my head long after I’ve stopped listening to it. It’s such a simple but effective technique, and I’m honestly surprised it works as well as it does to make this song memorable when it doesn’t really have a “chorus” in the traditional sense. It’s really just three verses with a fairly repetitive melody, but they bring in Tom’s harmonies to add depth to Jim’s lead vocal when the third verse comes around, to ramp up the intensity – yet another thing that works better than I’d expect it to. In between the last two verses are some pretty cool drum fills, which is something Zach makes sure to pepper into a lot of the otherwise pretty straightforward songs on this album. If this track is meant to be taken as the general theme of the record, I’d have to wager a guess that it’s about understanding the difference between just barely hanging on and trying to live while keeping pain to a minimum, and actually experiencing life and thriving, even if it involves taking risks and getting hurt. Throw in a nice little feedback squeal at the end of the song, and you’ve got yourself a compelling album opener.
Grade: A-

2. Criminal Energy
This one has a meaner vibe to it, which is definitely appropriate for the title. It reminds me a bit of “Nothingwrong”, one of my favorites from Futures, in the sense that it’s a tad bit heavier than most of the album, and also because it gives Jim a chance to show off the darker side of his voice that I like to refer to as his “withering chill”. He’s singing about bad people doing evil deeds here, and maybe I’m going out on a limb by saying that, but the song seems to suggest that the difference between us “normal” folks and those with a predisposition toward inhumane acts of selfishness isn’t in whether those thoughts come to our minds, but whether we act on them. I’m still working that one out, but it would definitely put it in line with “Nothingwrong” and also “Get It Faster”, a dark favorite of mine from Bleed American, in the sense that they’re all about rationalizing horrible things we’re capable of either doing to other people, or turning a blind eye when a third party does them. Jim’s lead guitar really sings here, and the song is a solid example of how his licks play against Tom’s riffs, plus he gets a slot for a solo in the bridge, so it’s a great track for fans to play air guitar to. It’s not quite as instantly memorable as the title track in the melody department, but it’s a well-times reminder that the band’s more sinister side is alive and kicking.
Grade: B+

3. Delivery
Even when the band shifts to mid-tempo on this record, I feel like they keep the energy up more than they did on their last few albums. A lot of that is because the drums are shoved up front most of the time, and Jim and Tom’s harmonizing goes a long way to make an otherwise basic chorus feel like it’s ascending toward the heavens. A fair portion of this record (like a lot of Jimmy Eat World’s material) seems to be about picking apart our emotional responses to either being in a relationship or having one fall apart, and on this particular track, Jim seems to be struggling with someone else’s expectations of him being the thing that unravels their relationship. They pivot from the second verse into the chorus with an especially arresting observation: “It’s only special once ’cause there’s an ending/And we realize we’re in a future memory.” Ouch. Do we sometimes fall in love with places or experiences that are shared with a person, instead of the person themselves? Are we too busy trying to preserve memories for our social media pages to actually be living in the moment with the person across the table with us? Jim tries to ask for some leniency, and some space to work on himself rather than needing to be immediately all put together, as he sings in the chorus, “I can only be so much potentially/From the rest, I patiently request delivery.” Wait… doesn’t he mean deliverance? Is this song titled after a grammatical misstep, or am I missing some other significance behind that word. Fortunately, it’s a rare lyrical stumble on a record where the band generally articulates itself quite well.
Grade: B

4. 555
I’d say this one qualifies as the album’s experimental track. We’ve definitely heard Jimmy Eat World do electronic and synth-heavy tracks before, but their take on synthwave here feels a bit different than a lot of the bands that have been riding the 80s nostalgia wave in recent years. It’s an outlier on this album for sure, since it’s the lone track that isn’t overtly guitar-based, and when guitars do show up, they’re used for harmony and texture. Hearing the electric guitar notes ring out during the chorus makes me think of a deep blue night sky with silver and gold lights suddenly bursting forth to illuminate it like a fireworks show. I love the synth bass and the faux hand claps/finger snaps/whatever they are that are this song’s primary driving forces. Once again, the vocal harmonies in the chorus are a big part of what sells the song. This one’s not perfect – I think some of the phrasing and pacing works against the chorus’s inherent catchiness – but it’s always a track I look forward to hearing because of how it changes things up without interrupting the album’s momentum. Here, they seem to be singing about those moments in a relationship where you get so preoccupied and up in your own head that you just sort of go through the motions and none of it feels quite real, so you’re not quite willing to believe the person actually likes or loves you. “Got the feeling I’ve been talking to a dead deadline” is one of the standout lyrics here – it’s an equally clever and devastating line. As for why the song is called “555”? I have no idea. It’s not even the fifth track, and the only other significance that number has to me is that it’s the prefix for fictional phone numbers in movies and TV. Maybe because he feels like he’s talking to someone who isn’t really there, a fake phone number is how he would contact them? I feel like I’m reaching a bit. Fascinating idea for a song if it turns out to be true, though.
Grade: B

5. One Mil
Most albums have to have their weak points, I guess. The average Jimmy Eat World has several slow to mid-tempo tracks that I have a hard time bringing myself to care about, so I suppose only having one such track on this album is an improvement. It’s one of those “Fake you out with an acoustic guitar, but then bring in the big electric riffs” type songs, and while my hopes are temporarily up when it kicks in at full volume, I don’t find as the song unfolds that the melody and pacing of it really grab me. I think the tempo’s still a bit too slow to work as a payoff after the big surprise. I’m also generally not a fan of numeric exaggerations in song lyrics. I’m fine with hyperbole, but whether you describe the number of chances you’ve had at something as a hundred, a thousand, a million, etc. doesn’t really change the meaning of the song, so it’s certainly not a great idea to title your song after that arbitrarily high number (or an abbreviation thereof, in this case.)
The lyrics don’t seem to try as hard here either. The missed chances they’re lamenting are basically opportunities to either impress or strike up a conversation with an attractive woman who I guess he could have had a relationship with if he were bolder. It seems pretty surface level compared to the analysis we’ve gotten in the previous few tracks. The guitar solo’s not bad on this one, I guess. But overall, the band’s definitely done better.
Grade: C+

6. All the Way (Stay)
The big single is easily the most fun thing on this album, though it had to grow on me. It has one of those stomping, “Jock Jams” sorts of beats to it that reminds me a little of “The Authority Song”, which was a dark horse favorite of mine on Bleed American. I guess I didn’t take to it right away because it felt a little too familiar? It only took a few listens to realize that i was being silly and this was pushing the envelope a slight bit by Jimmy Eat World standards. I mean, there’s a saxophone solo near the end! I’ve heard those done both ironically and earnestly in a variety of genres at this point, enough that it should be a dead horse by now, but the way it shows up in lockstep with the guitar melody, it’s like they’ve put a huge, gooey wax seal on this love letter of a song and sent it off with a big smooch. While this may seem like yet another song about taking chances in a relationship, and being too preoccupied with your own worries to accept the risks, I appreciate the subtle wordplay as Jim meets a woman in a bar and asks himself what going “all the way” would even mean – is he foolish to be looking for something more than a fling? Does he want to go farther than that, into a long-term relationship? I’m way too far removed from the whole existence of being a single person and having to figure out how to date in the modern age where we have all sorts of apps to pair us off at varying levels of permanency to really comment on whether the advice he’s giving himself is wise. But I can relate to the aspect of it where spending all your time worrying about whether what you have now is going to be forever, you’ll likely lose what you have now. The female backing vocals on this one are a really nice touch… a quick check of the credits reveals that Rachel Haden, who sang backup on some of their classic material, is still doing her thing with them after all these years, and I absolutely love it. With every aspects of this song, I feel like Jimmy Eat World went that extra mile to give us their power pop best.
Grade: A

7. Diamond
Some more fuzzed-up power chords hit us at the beginning of this one. For a song about gradually making something pristine out of something rough and dirty, I have to say that this one strikes an interesting balance between heaviness and melody. Basically it’s about being yourself and not rushing the process of healing/maturing/exploring your own identity just for the sake of pleasing someone else. It relates back to what Jim seemed to be asking the person he was with in “Delivery” that she wasn’t giving him adequate time/space to achieve. Pretty simple concept, but they pull it off with some sweet drum fills, a surprising key change during the bridge, and a chorus that absolutely glows. It’s a deep album cut for sure – definitely not one I noticed as readily due to the gargantuan singles on either side of it – but it’s gradually working its way up the ranks to become a possible future favorite.
Grade: B+

8. Love Never
I was perplexed when this single was initially released all the way back in summer 2018, with “Half Heart” as its B-side (which didn’t end up making the cut for Surviving). It grew on me a great deal toward the end of the summer, to the point where I belatedly realized it was one of the best Jimmy Eat World cuts I’d heard in a long time, possibly beating out my favorites from Integrity Blues. So I’m glad the band realized that and gave it a home on an album, even if it’s old news by now. There’s a new mix here that seems to beef up its already aggressive mood, but it was already a heavy hitter due to the thick wall of guitar riffs, the searing solo in the center, and some of the band’s most mature and insightful lyrics yet. “Love ain’t some magical thing/Love never gonna be the way you’re dreaming/It’s gonna seem so far/It’s gonna feel so hard/Until you want the work more than the reward.” I absolutely adore how they’ve explained this. Love isn’t just some fleeting emotion that happens to you when you’re lucky. That might be part of how it starts, but it takes a lot of hard work to keep it going, to the point where the amount of work you’re willing to put into it is the way you know the love is still real. This may seem unromantic or even downright cynical, but I do think relationships change the longer you’re in ’em, and it’s nice to hear a song about the value of putting in the effort to keep a good thing going, rather than just hoping good things continue to happen to you by random chance, which seems to be what most songs about young love or the beginning stages of a relationship are about. Such a great balance of aggression and heart-on-sleeve honesty here – this is exactly what I want from straight-ahead guitar rock, and really haven’t gotten enough of, in 2019.
Grade: A

9. Recommit
What could have been a generic filler track feels like it got kicked up a notch here, due to the sheer powers of the guitar, percussion, and Jim belting it out as passionately as he can. Zach gets a lot of credit for keeping some of these slower-paced songs engaging, too. The lyrics are a bit on the vague side here, but appear to be about a couple on the verge of breaking it off, while Jim is making the case for them to give it another chance, instead of just forsaking the commitment they made to each other. It fits with the theme of the last track, about love being a choice and something that requires work, not something you just assume has run its course when the magical feelings aren’t present 100% of the time. It’s not overtly about marriage as far as I can tell, but those who have struggled through periods of doubt over whether they should stay married, and who ultimately found reasons to do so, will probably relate.
Grade: B-

10. Congratulations
Here’s where the band truly pulls out all the stops. I can recall some long, slow finales on past Jimmy Eat World records, as well as a number of subdued ones, but never one where they went for broke like this – the 16-minute “Goodbye Sky Harbor” notwithstanding, of course. That’s the sort of surprise a band like this can only pull off once, and probably every album finale is going to live in its shadow for the rest of their career. Fittingly, there’s a reference to the album it came from here when Jim sings, “There’s no clarity in front of me.” What we’ve got here is the most hard-hitting number on the album, with a plethora of fun percussion sounds, cold and precise electric guitar riffs, little bits of synth lurking in the background to complement the bass (which is much more audible at certain points in this song than it has been through most of the album – Rick Burch gets a brief moment to shine when the rest of the song falls silent at around the three minute mark before gradually building up to its big finish), and don’t forget all the “whoa”s. AFI lead singer Davey Havok contributes his voice to this one, and I also hear some female vocals in the mix here and there, so when all of these voices come together, the song really feels larger than life. the lyrics are a bitter, sarcastic send-off to what sounds like an absolute dumpster fire of a human being, “congratulating” them on how they’ve been so selfish, petty, obstinate, insistent on being right, and an all-around entitled S.O.B. that they’ve driven everyone else away from them. I’m really glad that the band recognized this as the sort of emotionally cathartic high point that was worth ending the album with, and thus they gave it a few extra minutes at the end for the percussion and the guitars to go absolutely berserk before it all comes crashing to a dead stop. I sure hope they end their concerts this way while touring the album too, because it’s the most damn fantastic track they’ve come up with in ages.
Grade: A+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Surviving $1.50
Criminal Energy $1.25
Delivery $1
555 $1
One Mil $.50
All the Way (Stay) $1.75
Diamond $1.25
Love Never $1.75
Recommit $.75
Congratulations $2
TOTAL: $12.75

BAND MEMBERS:
Jim Adkins: Lead vocals, lead guitar
Zach Lind: Drums, percussion, programming
Tom Linton: Rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Rick Burch: Bass, backing vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.jimmyeatworld.com/
https://www.facebook.com/jimmyeatworld/

3 thoughts on “Jimmy Eat World – Surviving: Do you want the work more than the reward?

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