Tuesday, June 11, 2013

album review: 'damage' by jimmy eat world

Ugh, I hate this. 

I hate that this is a factor in my enjoyment of songs, because it makes me look like the most nitpicking, audiophile asshole, the kind that bitches against iPods because of mp3 compression and only listens to FLACs, or the kind that remixes and remasters songs in his basement and because of that has an inflated feeling that 'he just knows music better'. Let me make this absolutely fucking clear - I completely get why people like listening to music at high bitrates, and I would be lying if I didn't say that I'd take the sound of good organic vinyl over some YouTube rip any day of the week. And yeah, I will completely stand behind artists like Nick Cave when he says that Henry's Dream didn't come out properly because of the shoddy production, and I will wholeheartedly support his choice to make a phenomenal live album where he basically replayed the album properly.

But with all of that in mind, music should be about music, not production. While there is a fine art to good production and mixing, it's arguably the least important element in comparison to the instrumentation and lyrics. The notes being played and the words being sung are the creative element, the raw spark of art - production and mixing are the editing desk, the polish, the filter from which the art is passed to us. It shouldn't matter if 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones is played mono or stereo or if it was run through a high pass filter or the reverb is a little too high on Jagger's microphone, it's still 'Satisfaction' by the fucking Rolling Stones

But as much as I don't like it, I can't help but admit that production and mixing matter. They might be the least important element in this process, but they're definitely an element in this process that is disastrous to overlook. And not for the first time, I can't help but feel that if an element of the production for this band had been improved, I'd like them a lot more.

So with that, let's talk about Jimmy Eat World, yet another entry in the list of acts that I can definitely acknowledge is good and that I can kind of like, but I can never quite love, no matter how hard I try. But unlike a case like Radiohead, I can pinpoint exactly where Jimmy Eat World doesn't work for me: the vocal production and placement in the mix has never consistently worked.

Let me expand. The band burst into the underground in 1994 with their self-titled debut, which was decent enough to score them a small cult following that was quickly squashed by their 1996 follow-up Static Prevails. Now, there are a slew of other problems with Static Prevails beyond the vocal production mix, mostly in that the songwriting was pretty lousy and the instrumentation wasn't as polished, but most of these problems were cleaned up by the 1999 album Clarity. And yes, I'll be the first to acknowledge that the best elements of Jimmy Eat World's sound - the extremely solid guitar work, the bigness in their sound, their heartfelt (if occasionally self-obsessed) lyrics - were all here. But as much as I tried, I could never get over the fact that lead singer Jim Adkins' vocals were buried midway in the track behind the guitars, and were more often than not barely audible. 

That was the other factor that always annoyed me about Jimmy Eat World, namely that the vocal performance was never very strong, as Adkins' vocals always struck me as rather thin. Fortunately the band compensated for that on their next release Bleed American, pulling the vocals more to the front of the track and adding reverb and backing vocals to support Adkins, and sure enough Bleed American was their strongest album yet. They'd follow it with Futures and Chase This Light, both albums I really like but don't quite love, mostly due to the swarm of little irritations that always seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind, mostly surrounding Adkins' vocals and the occasional sloppy or immature bit of songwriting (the worst thing I'll ever say about the instrumentation is that on a few occasions it got a little cluttered or repetitive). And yet always the persistent problem I had on all three of those albums is that every so often - often enough to be noticeable and frustrating - the vocals were just drowned out entirely behind the roar of the guitars, and while I'll admit that this will always be a pet peeve of mine, it rankles here all the more because of how much Jimmy Eat World consistently got right.

And then they released Invented in 2010, and... well, I'll be more polite to it than some of the more rabid fans and say it was uneven. Sure, the trademark elements of Jimmy Eat World were here, and the vocals were high enough in the mix that they could usually be pulled out, but the attempts to add electronic elements and a female backing vocalist did nothing to help matters, and the songwriting hadn't improved (both in technical proficiency or subject matter) since Chase This Light in 2007. But it was on Invented they let lead guitarist Tom Linton sing lead vocals, and it was here that my problem with Jimmy Eat World finally crystallizes - the vocal production on Jim Adkins' voice never fits with the production of the rest of the track. Sure, his thin tenor matches the subject matter of the songs fairly well (Jimmy Eat World has always been one of the wussiest bands in alt rock and power pop, and that's saying something), but in comparison to the crashing, epic sounding guitars and pounding bass and drums, he always sounds drowned out, which ultimately comes down to an issue of vocal production. In comparison, Tom Linton's rasp might have less range but the vocal production done for his part of the mix flows much better.

But now it's 2013, and Jimmy Eat World have been active for over nineteen years - surely on their most recent album Damage they will have figured out the vocal production balance, right?

Well, of course they didn't - I wouldn't have spent the first half of this review bitching about it if they had figured it out, would I?

The unfortunate thing, though, is that the vocal production isn't the biggest problem with Damage. No, there are much bigger problems with this album that probably make it their worst in a long time. Yeah, worse than Invented (mostly because none of the songs on this album can really reach the heights that album had). But, just so I can get my pet peeve out of the way, I can say that I don't like the vocal production work on Damage. In fact, I'd argue it's even worse than before, with the audio quality on the vocals measurably worse than the guitar or bass tracks. It's a bizarre situation, because it feels unintentionally like Jimmy Eat World decided to use a half-functioning microphone for the vocal recordings that didn't pick up the sound with the same depth - and then to mask it, they buried the vocal track in the middle of the mix again. Joy.

But putting aside that pet peeve, I can say that the elements that make Jimmy Eat World at least tolerable are still here. The guitar work is still solid, the drumming is still driving and forceful, the 'big' production is still on display, all of this is here to show that Jimmy Eat World's sound hasn't evolved the slightest since Clarity over sixteen years ago. And I'll say to Jimmy Eat World the same thing I said about Alice In Chains, in that there's nothing really wrong with sticking to an iconic sound provided you occasionally shake up the formula. And to my satisfaction, they did attempt to shake things up in the lyrical department, because this is Jimmy Eat World's entry in the long list of breakup albums.

The big problem is that nobody was on the same page on how to properly make a breakup album. I've never liked Jim Adkins' voice, but it became abundantly clear that he does not have the emotional range in his vocals to pull off any dramatic emotion, no matter how much backing vocals he has. In comparison, I made the questionable decision to start relistening to Beck's Sea Change after listening to Damage (surprise surprise, Beck's breakup album is still incredibly good), and I was absolutely blown away by how much emotion and texture was in Beck's voice, that you could buy all of the little emotions he brought to the tracks. But with Jim Adkins, he seems to only have one real emotion in his vocals, and it's not one that suits a breakup album. 

It doesn't help matters at all that the songwriting is still pretty damn weak, and after nineteen years of albums, it's starting to be a little inexcusable. And while I will admit that Jim Adkins' voice does fit the painfully adolescent lyrics, it doesn't quite excuse them. As I said before, Jimmy Eat World have always been one of the wussiest alt-rock acts, and thus on their breakup album the wholehearted, lovestruck exuberance turns into catty bitterness and whining. And sure, there's a place for those sorts of lyrics, but the sloppy lyrical flow, the technical weaknesses, the sour subject matter, and the often complete abandonment of rhyme scheme left a really bad taste in my mouth. It doesn't help matters that Jimmy Eat World are plainly trying to be a little bit more 'mature' on this album, which becomes impossible to buy when you listen to songs like 'I Will Steal You Back' or 'ByeByeLove' or with lines like 'The book of love is fiction / written by the loneliest to sing'. It doesn't help that the generally self-obsessed nature of Jimmy Eat World's lyrics returns in a bad way, with very few of the songs providing anything but condescension towards his former lover's feelings - and while that isn't always a bad thing, it typically only works when delivered by singers with charisma and insight and wit, and Jim Adkins isn't that singer!

On top of all of this, Jimmy Eat World appear to have 'gone back to basics' with the instrumentation on this album, getting rid of some of the more modern elements they incorporated on Invented. Now, I don't exactly have a problem with this, mostly because the attempted modernization wasn't done very well, but it also leads to a tonal mishmash that flat-out doesn't come together. The booming guitars and huge sound don't really fit well with small, catty lyrics and Jim Adkins' weak performance, and in the end, it adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. And as much as I'd love to give a passing grade to the instrumentation and move on (as it does a suspiciously good job in distracting me from the lousy lyrics and singing), it's gotten harder and harder to ignore that Jimmy Eat World just haven't evolved.

in the end, Damage isn't going to change your life and if you're a hardcore fan of Jimmy Eat World, you'll probably like the 'back-to-basics' approach. But to a casual listener who only sort of likes Jimmy Eat World, this album is pretty mediocre and won't do anything to change your mind. And the more time passes, the more I think Jimmy Eat World will fade as another one-hit wonder like other power-pop bands, like Semisonic and Fountains of Wayne.

But unlike both of those acts, I'm not entirely sure Jimmy Eat World doesn't deserve that one-hit wonder title.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good and thoughtful review. A few points:

    You make it sound like Tom Linton sang for the first time on Invented. He sang on much of Static Prevails. I too like his voice and wish it were utilized more often.

    In general, I've always thought Adkins' vocals were too high in the mix. I'd rather hear more guitar.

    Your last sentence is very hard to understand: too many negatives.