Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Moving out from “The Middle”: 60 minutes of eternal adolescence with Jimmy Eat World

Moving out from “The Middle”: 60 minutes of eternal adolescence with Jimmy Eat World

Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images, Graphic: Emma McKhann

A couple of years ago, a strange blip appeared on the music-sales matrix. Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” an infectious dollop of alt-rock ear candy that hit the radio like a sugar rush a decade and a half prior, was suddenly back in heavy rotation. There it was, sitting pretty at No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, with downloads of the once-inescapable smash increasing nearly 300 percent and streaming services reporting a big uptick in plays, too. Turns out that there was a pretty simple explanation for the song’s unexpected second act: The previous week, Taylor Swift had lip-synced to it in an Apple Music commercial that promptly went viral. (This is the sway Tay Tay has over America’s listening habits. She can make a new hit out of an old song just by pretending to sing it.)

While it’s possible one of the biggest pop stars in the world simply triggered a mass nostalgia trip, sending everyone racing to their phones to hear the giant hit single they couldn’t avoid in the waning days of 2001, it’s perhaps just as likely that Swift actually introduced “The Middle” to a lot of people—specifically, to fans too young to know the tune from its FM heyday. That would be kind of perfect, honestly. Because at heart, Jimmy Eat World is a teenage band. Not a juvenile band, incapable of letting go of its salad days, but a band that speaks directly to teenagers—to their heightened emotional state, to a time when feelings cut deeper and romances loom as large as Greek tragedies. Poring over the songbook of these now-veteran musicians is like paging through some sensitive high-school kid’s journal, with each anthem a carpe diem rallying cry for wallflowers and every ballad a lovelorn prom-night lament. Not for nothing does the video for “The Middle” depict the band playing a house party for an audience of happy, horny, half-dressed teens.

Formed in Mesa, Arizona in 1993, when its members were still actual teenagers, Jimmy Eat World (or JEW, as the band’s name is sometimes uncomfortably abbreviated) started out playing a fairly straightforward strain of pop punk. Over the years, its sound evolved, slowing down and branching out to encompass sprawling epics, more compositionally complex indie rock, and crunchy whoa-whoa power pop of the Weezer variety. “Emo” is the three- and sometimes four-letter word many would use to describe such unapologetically earnest music. And certainly, no deep dive into that genre would be complete without a chapter on “The Middle,” which helped usher emo into the mainstream, or Clarity, a record—like Weezer’s Pinkerton—often cited as a major influence on the younger groups that made a mint off teenage sensitivity in the early 2000s. But the band has never entirely fit into just one box. Its constant is teen spirit, not sound: a sincerity as loud as any power chord.

2001’s Bleed American, with its string of radio hits (including “The Middle”), rocketed Jimmy Eat World to stardom. But the band really found itself on the earlier, weirder Clarity, when lead guitarist Jim Adkins permanently took over frontman duties from rhythm guitarist Tom Linton. Adkins, whose vocals stretch from a croon to a yelp (and almost never stoop to a whine), knows how to sell melodrama—to bring out the emotional truth in tantrums about corporate sellouts, autopsies of dead relationships, and woe-is-me wallows for lonely hearts. It helps, of course, that unlike a lot of the emo stars that emerged in the wake of the band’s expanding popularity, he also tends to wrap his big feels in bigger hooks, turning bedroom confessions into shiny arena fodder. Now in his 40s, Adkins still sings like someone deeply in touch with his inner Lloyd Dobler. But his songwriting isn’t trapped in pubescence. He’s a young soul who’s aged gracefully.

So, too, has his band. Jimmy Eat World is celebrating its 25th birthday by zigzagging across the country, reassuring fans old and new that everything, everything will be all right, all right. To commemorate the anniversary, here’s a rundown of the best, brightest songs Adkins and company have to offer. You won’t find “The Middle” on this mix. After all, who needs to be told to listen to one of the millennium’s most omnipresent earworms, especially now that it’s climbed the charts twice? Also absent is beloved Clarity closer “Goodbye Sky Harbor,” because including one 16-minute song—no matter how quintessential—would mean excluding three other worthy contenders. Culled from all but two of the albums (2013’s mediocre, unmemorable Damage and 1994’s out-of-print, self-titled debut are the odd records out), it’s a career-spanning rundown, designed to introduce teenage romantics of all ages to their new favorite band. Adolescence has a soundtrack. This is basically it.

“Bleed American” (2001)

If you bought Bleed American even just a few weeks after its summer 2001 release, there’s a good chance that you knew it as Jimmy Eat World; following the September 11 attacks, it was rereleased under a title that wouldn’t remind consumers of, well, bleeding Americans. But by any name, the band’s fourth and most enduringly popular album is also its most consistently upbeat: a sterling collection of radio-friendly rock songs whose jukebox shout-outs and positive affirmations sounded especially comforting during a tough national crucible. The furthest the record strays into darkness is its opening track and lead single: Dubbed “Salt Sweat Sugar” on the self-titled version, “Bleed American” builds a monument of alienation atop slashing guitars and a bellowed chorus. But the song’s (very relative) piss and vinegar can’t disguise its hookiness, and a cynical line like “I’m not alone with the TV on” even took on new, perhaps more commiserative meaning at a time when plenty of listeners were glued to their own tubes in collective mourning.

“Always Be” (2007)

Jimmy Eat World has never topped the commercial success of Bleed American, but it hasn’t been for a lack of accessibility. In fact, the quartet’s pop instincts arguably sharpened over the albums that followed. “Always Be,” the second single off of 2007’s Chase This Light, assembles a three-minute burst of pure catchiness around a familiar tale of lovers drifting toward an inevitable impasse. While the lyrics drip with self-pity (“Love would be something that I just know / How you gonna know the feeling till you’ve lost it?”), the music itself is more jubilant, contrasting romantic uncertainty with finger snaps, hand claps, backup coos, and bouncy guitar. It’s a fine example of the band’s spoon-full-of-sugar approach, making navel-gazing positively delectable.

“Heart Is Hard To Find” (2010)

Growing up without losing the spark is a challenge every emo elder statesman faces. Jimmy Eat World has met it with more success than most, largely by marrying the open-wound sentiments of its early work to a maturing songcraft. With its quasi-bluegrass strum and swell of strings, “Heart Is Hard To Find” is cornball nirvana; it builds to a winning chorus, as Adkins throws his full vocal conviction behind the titular search for that most symbolic of vital organs. Close in spirit (if not lyric) to something out of The Decemberists’ playbook, the song opens 2010’s underrated Invented on a high note, suggesting a clear path forward into adulthood for these forever-young rockers.

“A Praise Chorus” (2001)

Before invading the airwaves, Jimmy Eat World paid jaunty tribute to past radio royalty. Inverting the quiet-loud-quiet structure of “The Middle,” this peppy pep-talk of a fellow Bleed American single races enthusiastically through its verses, then slows to a pounding-in-the-chest refrain about wanting to fall in love to a song you know. The hook of “A Praise Chorus” is that it’s peppered with lyrics by everyone from Bad Company to Tommy James And The Shondells to They Might Be Giants. Cuing up their ultimate party mix, the guys get us dancing to what makes them dance, all while crafting a tune destined to create its own waves of elation every time it comes on in the car or in the club.

“A Sunday” (1999)

A commercial failure that got the band unceremoniously dropped by Capitol Records, 1999’s tender Clarity has risen to the level of cherished cult classic; a generation of sadsacks now credit it for inspiring them to pick up guitars and put their ennui to song. The lovely “A Sunday” epitomizes the album’s influential appeal: that ache in Adkins’ voice, the throb of instruments consuming it (credit the rhythm section, Rick Burch and Zach Lind, for the song’s tight stomp), and the tinkling bells and church organ that provide his ambiguous lyrics with an almost religious significance. Jimmy Eat World would soon adopt a more robust, mainstream style, but in its vulnerability and adventurousness, Clarity remains special.

“Work” (2004)

If the guys of Jimmy Eat World still needed proof, in the wake of Bleed American’s platinum sales, that they’d “made it,” securing indie-rock legend Liz Phair to sing backup probably provided it. To be fair, there’s not much of Phair on the sparkling second single from Futures; she’s there only to add some lilting harmony where it counts. But with its bright, crisp guitar hook and leave-it-all-behind chorus, “Work” is worthy of her cameo. It’s an irresistible ode to jumping into the deep end with someone when you know you shouldn’t—a reckless impulse not so far removed from some of those expressed on Exile In Guyville. Isn’t “Work and play are never okay to mix the way we do” just a different way of saying “It’s harder to be friends than lovers / And you shouldn’t try to mix the two”?

“Call It In The Air” (1996)

The Jimmy Eat World of Static Prevails doesn’t sound a whole lot like the Jimmy Eat World of future records, partially because Tom Linton was still handling lead vocal duties with his NOFX-era pipes. “Call It In The Air,” the best song on the band’s sophomore disc, runs through some vague get-out-of-the-burbs platitudes at a caffeinated sprint. But the interplay between the two guitarist-singers, coupled with a big eruption of melody during the bridge, offers a glimmer of bigger and better things on the horizon: the ambitious, emotionally vibrant band that Jimmy Eat World would soon become. But even if that never happened, this would still be a fun, energetic tune.

“For Me This Is Heaven” (1999)

Some of Jimmy Eat World’s most affecting songs blur the shades of a mood ring, locating some indeterminate middle ground between joy and sadness, like the climax of Inside Out. Another Clarity standout, “For Me This Is Heaven” builds to a rapturous crescendo. But the lyrics imply a more bittersweet experience, as Adkins sings, emphatically, of a “last goodnight” and time passing through his and an unidentified other’s fingertips. At times, he seems almost to be wrestling with his effervescent accompaniment for say in what, exactly, is being communicated. “Can you still feel the butterflies?” goes one unabashedly mushy line. Anyone who’s ever felt at war with their insides will have an answer to that question.

“If You Don’t, Don’t” (2001)

Like “For Me This Is Heaven,” this Bleed American deep cut revels in emotional confusion. Spinning a will-they/won’t-they narrative about two people tiptoeing into an “It’s complicated” friendship status, Adkins plays romantic victim and lout, one minute demanding that the object of his affection make up her mind about what she wants before plunging into anything, the next apologizing for taking “everything you let me have, and never [loving] you back.” Meanwhile, specific references—to the supposedly haunted Weatherford Hotel in Tempe, to Interstate 405 in California—grant this short story of doomed amour a tinge of specificity, maybe even a personal touch. “If You Don’t, Don’t” has a pleasing midtempo hum, but it’s Adkins’ wistful ruminations that earn it a spot in the band’s best-of canon.

“Kill” (2004)

Is “Kill” Jimmy Eat World’s finest hour? This Futures highlight realizes something close to an emo ideal across four gloriously melancholic minutes. Ballasted by a downbeat acoustic riff that explodes into shimmering guitar like a wellspring of repressed feeling, Adkins pines in solitude, picking up and putting down the phone (“like your favorite Heatmiser song goes,” he explains), tying himself in knots. The emo genre has been criticized for romanticizing unhealthy obsession, and on that charge, “Kill” is guilty as sin. But few torch songs have better expressed the near-universal agony of unrequited affection. Healthy or not, it’s a blockbuster of exquisite heartache.

“Coffee And Cigarettes” (2010)

The aforementioned “Work” daydreamed about dropping everything and putting your hometown in the rearview mirror. Six years later, Jimmy Eat World explored that suburban fantasy from a past-tense perspective. As enjoyably square as the identically titled Jim Jarmusch movie is hip, “Coffee And Cigarettes” follows a real or fictional graduate (the album title is Invented, so autobiography can’t be assumed) who fulfills his wanderlust and drives west; a mid-song duet featuring singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews (“It didn’t work,” she reports) plunks a requiem for a failed romance into the middle of this nostalgia-cum-road trip. Why didn’t the band’s most chipper, straightforward single since “The Middle” hit the charts harder? Its ecstatic refrain deserved greater fanfare.

“The End Is Beautiful” (2016)

Time hasn’t eroded Jimmy Eat World’s talent for penning evocative breakup ballads. If anything, the band’s only gotten more specific in its songwriting, capturing the embers and not just the smoke wafting off an extinguished love affair. The gentle, elegiac “The End Is Beautiful” snaps a picture of the moment when two people rationally realize that what they once had is gone. (It’s not the only song on the band’s most recent LP, 2016’s Integrity Blues, that seems to chronicle a dissolving relationship.) Chasing sober observations about a couple’s steady drift apart with a chorus that sees a kind of euthanasia in separation, “The End Is Beautiful” ultimately justifies its title: Once again, Jimmy Eat World has located beauty in a painful but liberating farewell.

“Blister” (1999)

Tom Linton may have graciously ceded the frontman role to his bandmate a couple of decades ago, but he still gets the odd few minutes in the spotlight whenever Jimmy Eat World dusts off an old staple. And never is that return to the mic more triumphant than when he’s bellowing “Blister.” One of only two tracks on Clarity that features Linton on lead vocals, this giant sing-along anthem hints at an alternate what-if future (and Futures) shaped by his urgent rallying cries instead of Adkins’ cleaner, more heartfelt delivery. There are stronger songs scattered across the band’s discography. But when the drums kick back in and Linton shouts his hypothetical, metaphorical question from the rooftops one last time, it’s hard to think of a more rousing one.

“23” (2004)

There’s a reasonable case to be made that Futures is Jimmy Eat World’s best album. It’s a perfect synthesis of what came before it, combining the intimacy of Clarity with the stadium-ready polish of Bleed American. And the record ends on a sweeping, swooning note of tearjerker majesty. His falsetto choked with regret and longing, a pushing-30 Adkins winds the clock back to the titular birthday to deliver a eulogy for lost love—a roleplaying flashback that works like a microcosm for his career-long ability to get into the heads and hearts of those younger than himself. Not that there’s anything particularly micro about this seven-and-a-half minute power ballad, which stretches almost endlessly into a post-rock purgatory, rivaling the twice-as-long “Goodbye Sky Harbor” in the cathartic-grandeur department. But emo, as a rule, is an excessive genre, and “23” makes that poignantly, massively literal.

Sweetness” (2001)

When Jimmy Eat World doesn’t close with “The Middle,” it reaches instead for “Sweetness,” an even more elemental blast of pop-rock alchemy. There are barely lyrics, just two jingling riffs, twisting together around an almost instructional call-and-response. Think of it as the band’s “Song 2,” and let its blissful simplicity close out this glorified mixtape on a pleasure high. After an hour of breakup blues and plaintive pop, everyone deserves a few palate-cleansing, party-starting, mood-improving “whoa”s.