By DANIEL LEVIN BECKER
Jimmy Eat World
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Better than: A State of the Union address.
I'm projecting here, but it seems to me that you go to an emo show as an adult expecting to be confronted with, and probably to sing along to, several lyrics that encapsulate with comical precision the experience of being a teenager who listens to emo. "Can you still feel the butterflies?" is a good one, as are "I'm alone in this / I'm as I've always been / Right behind what's happening" and "You wanna take a ride? / Get out of this place while we still have time?" ("Our hearts littering the topsoil," from the song "Bleed American," qualifies too, except that an informal 360-degree survey last night confirmed that nobody actually knows the lyrics to that song.)
And yet last night, as the Arizona quartet (plus one, about half the time) Jimmy Eat World ran through a couple dozen selections from the last six of their eight albums, what came across strongest was not so much the myopia and melodrama of the adolescent years as an unwavering kind of stealth-empathy, a quiet willingness to grapple with things that are bigger than them, bigger than any of us.
"Why so hard to find a balance between living decent and the cold and real?" asks the wonderfully propulsive "Futures"; "I am but one small instrument," coos a refrain in "Goodbye Sky Harbor," of which last night's abridged version -- the original is 16 minutes long -- crunched and chimed with sublime solidity. (It was one of the set's highlights, and not coincidentally one of roughly three places where the songs didn't sound exactly as they do on record. On the other hand, singer Jim Adkins's solo acoustic rendition of "For Me This Is Heaven" might have been a good idea symbolically, but in practice it was terrible.)
Jimmy Eat World are, rarity of rarities, an emo band that has aged comfortably and coherently, albeit with a name that was almost certainly never meant to be printed in huge type on a banner that gets rolled up every night and driven from city to city. They're not kids anymore, to be sure, but they haven't lost the sincerity, the parched look of complete and passionate absorption in the music; both the professionalism and the abandon just seem to come naturally to them. And if they haven't made a great record since Bleed American or maybe Futures, you could also argue that they've never made great records so much as make great songs, spread them out over a series of albums, and pad the rest with songs that are sweet and tuneful and uplifting and extremely identifiable as Jimmy Eat World. The most recent of these, Damage, came out this June, to the surprise of every single person to whom I mentioned that I was going to see Jimmy Eat World.
But last night's setlist had very little padding and a whole lot of the songs that are thrilling and galvanizing, and when you hear enough of those all together the common thread that emerges is this rare quality of outward awareness, this engagement that goes beyond the first-person narrator. Where most emo bands dissolve or become unlistenably bad once they get too old to telegraph youth and restlessness, Jimmy Eat World found a gig writing self-help anthems for the young and restless. The earliest songs they played, namely the four from 1999's Clarity -- which popular consensus will tell you, not inaccurately, is their best album -- sounded ominously cautionary (e.g., "Better sing now while you still can"), but consider the chord struck by the ignore-the-haters chart-topper "The Middle," and pretty much everything that's followed: life is ups and downs, we're all in this together, you're less fucked than you think. Go ahead, find me two consecutive Jimmy Eat World songs that don't say, even in passing, something wide-eyed yet wise, questing yet reassuring.
It's to their credit, I think, that they've managed to ride this wave so much longer than we expected or thought we'd care. Sometimes they've crested at a "Sweetness" or a "Futures" or a "Big Casino," more often not, but they've kept working to make sense of the personal travails we all pass through, to tie them to a broader narrative about what it means to play a little part in something big. The point being, if you'll indulge me, that their self-help anthems are just aware and engaged and imprecise enough to read, at their best, as national self-help anthems too -- which isn't too bad for a twenty-year-old band from one of the most fucked states in our union. For an hour and a half last night it seemed workable, for those of us who would grow up but hold on to what we loved about this music in the first place, to train our gaze where they point, on the middle distance between the navel and the stars.
On Matt Pond: More deserves to be said about Pond's five-piece ensemble's energetically rootsy and rigorously punctual set, like the part where he complimented the audience for being so polite and nobody yelled anything back at him ("This is so quiet," he said: "What's wrong with you?"), but all I really want to know is when he dropped the "PA" from "Matt Pond PA."
On "Hear You Me": I spotted two lighters in the air and, happily, no cell phones.
On "The Middle": Do we, the people, actually like this song? Or am I the only one who thinks it's dumb (without, you know, thinking all of Jimmy Eat World's songs are dumb)? Its appearance at the end of the encore was the only time I remember seeing drummer Zach Lind smile, which I guess is worth something, though it could have been a smile of relief at almost being allowed to stop whomping his drum kit with bearlike precision.
On the phrase "bearlike precision": zero Google results.
On "23": The 24th song in Jimmy Eat World's set. See: How to tweak an amateur numerologist.
On "Bleed American": You guys know that "Bleed American's name was changed to Jimmy Eat World for about seven years following 9/11, right? And that this song became "Salt Sweat Sugar"? Don't thank me, thank the Wikipedia contributor who specified that this was in response to the fear that the title "might be misinterpreted, possibly as a threatening 'bleed, American.'"
On "The Middle," pt. II: Can we find a clinical psychologist to weigh in on whether or not "It's only in your head you feel left out and looked down on" is sound advice?