Teen Dreaming

Jimmy Eat World on aging gracefully and the integrity of the human blues

Over the 24 years since forming, Mesa band Jimmy Eat World has evolved from cult emo kids on the pop-punk circuit, to a group of It kids capable of writing some of the finest anthems in contemporary rock 'n' roll. Simultaneously empathetic and singsong, Jimmy Eat World has somehow entered the world inhabited by Weezer, where rock tunes can be emotional, without the maudlin sap, and, hence, no mockery by "serious" musos. In other words, they're smarter than most in rock.

The early albums — the self-titled debut, Clarity, and Static Prevails, remain beloved for a kind of naive openness, but it was '01's mad chart breakthrough, Bleed American, that sealed the band's place in pop history, and in forever in hearts of kids ... the songs beg to be listened to years later when pangs of nostalgia give them indelible weight. Not many pop songs and albums can do that. Tunes like "The Middle" and "Sweetness" touched a wide audience and now proliferate playlists of weepy soccer moms, divorcees, and anyone suddenly where their youth went.

Late last year saw the release of the band's ninth album, Integrity Blues, a record that proves the band hasn't let quality drop and empathy drop, yet they've matured in sonics and themes. You can still sing-along.

"I think the band's evolved in every way that it can evolve," says singer and guitarist Jim Adkins. "It's not unlike thinking about your younger self and comparing that to your present self. Who was 18-year-old you, and how was that different to present-day you? That's an intangible answer. I think in the past, a lot was left up just purely for the thrill of discovery. That's special, but after you develop a competency with what you're doing, just seeing where things go—you need a little bit more direction. But I think we're better at assessing what we need to do, and picking it up."

Adkins is right. Unless you're a cockroach, each one of us has changed beyond recognition since we were 18. Not all of us, however, are faced with regurgitating the work our 18-year-old selves churned out, night after night. The frontman is pragmatic about that.

"I think that's a common thing people are curious about—how do we approach this material that was written in the early days of the band that people still connect with and want to hear?" he says. "I totally get that but I think, when you're performing, it's not that difficult of a task because you go on stage with a clear head and no expectations of what's possibly going to happen. That way, anything that does happen, you're able to take in as much as you can a unique experience. The fact is, we have thousands of people going crazy for something that you wrote. If you can't find peace within yourself to enjoy that and have fun with that, then you shouldn't be playing music."

After Bleed American's '01 release, it was retitled Jimmy Eat World out of respect following the 9/11 attacks. When the album was later rereleased, the original title was reinstated. Despite that bit of controversy, the album sky-rocketed the band into the public consciousness. That kind cultural success is to repeat, for anyone. Adkins has a theory why Jimmy Eat World, in particular, hasn't hit the same commercial watermark.

"Bleed American was a record that achieved a pretty saturated level of commercial exposure," Adkins says. "I think you get a chance like that once. You get to be the new band and have the push behind that, everybody wanting to take ownership of breaking the new band, kinda once. That used to be music journalism. It still is, but now it's also everybody. Just look at your social media feeds of people sharing music. It's just an impulse—you discovered something and you want to share it. We're no longer the new thing. But I don't waste a whole lot of time obsessing over that level of commercial success and whether or not we're achieving it. That's completely out of your control. You can do things, smart things, that take advantage of opportunities that come your way, but I think the surest way to turn people off is to try to chase that."

Bleed American's follow-up, the slightly more political Futures, went gold, still a huge commercial success by anyone's standards, especially for an Arizona band. Adkins says the band writes about whatever inspires, reluctant to be boxed in by subject matter, politics, Trump, whatever.

"At this point, you don't bother to self-center where it's coming from," he says. "If something is staying with you for more than a passing thought, then you should chase that because it's there for a reason. Whether or not people hear the results, it doesn't matter. You better yourself by putting it in and trying to see where it goes."

The response, both public and critical, to Integrity Blues suggests that the band is doing stuff right, fans keen to hang on for the ride and see how the band grows. The songs might not always hit instantly, but each is worth the effort. Adkins says he's pleased at the response to the new album—what else would he say?—even if widespread adoration isn't something he necessarily craves.

"It sure does feel good when more people are clapping than yelling at you," he says. "We put a lot of work in, we're proud of it, and the fans seem to be connecting with it. Older fans that may have liked us back in those days and have gone on and had new tastes and new things come into their life seem to be coming back, which is natural. I think that we have done a really good job with trying to challenge ourselves, and the reward that comes with that has been the work. It's really awesome to see that people who have given us a shot in the past have come along with us now."

Jimmy Eat World plays Tucson this week in. Adkins always digs the chance to play the city less then two hours from where he grew up.

"I love Tucson," he says. "It's an amazing place. We made the album Futures down there. It has an amazing art scene. People are passionate and care. I think you really feel that whenever you're engaged in something relative to the art scene. In high school, we always drove down to see gigs, sometimes without my parents' full knowledge of where I was going. Tucson has always been a hub for live music, and for arts in general."

The foursome will be playing songs from all nine albums, focusing on newer ones. That might make fans sigh with many bands, especially those groups who've almost been around long enough to become a nostalgia act relegated to county fairs and casino shows in places like Baraboo, Wisconsin. But Jimmy Eat World ain't that band, and they don't at all encourage any crowd to sit for new songs. Quite the opposite.

"We love playing the new songs," Adkins says. "We're going to try to play some older songs that maybe longtime fans haven't heard in a while, or maybe ever. It's a huge mix of everything that we've done."

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