Friday, October 28, 2016

album review: 'integrity blues' by jimmy eat world

Of the albums I was expecting that I'd eventually cover this year, a new record from Jimmy Eat World was not one of them.

And to be completely honest, I'm not entirely sure why that is, probably not helped that I'm pretty divided on the group as a whole. I've always considered the band something of a mess of contradictions: the lyrics treading right up to the line of emo with frontman Jim Adkins tending to underplay his delivery... paired with instrumentation that went straight for power pop and never turned back, most of which led to songs that had swell and impact instrumentally but weren't always well matched by their content. It was always a balancing act for me with Jimmy Eat World - at their best, they hit anthemic rock beats that could match the broader scope of their writing, or managed to precisely nail a sweet spot that would make them influential in emo throughout the next decade. 

Granted, by emo standards Jimmy Eat World were never great songwriters - Say Anything never had anything to worry about - which is why I tended to like their more anthemic stabs like Futures and Chase The Light a fair bit more than most, and am willing to forgive some parts of Invented. But 2013's Damage was a frustrating listen, an attempt to go 'back to basics' with their scope and sound, and ditching Mark Trombino's production to do it left with middling results at best - not a bad album, but certainly not one anybody remembered. But there's a part of me that was kind of curious about their album this year Integrity Blues, mostly because they were working with Justin Meldel-Johnsen on production - and even though I've definitely come down hard on his production work in the past, he has injected more personality into his work and that could be a good fit for Jimmy Eat World, who as a band I've always thought could use a little more flash. So okay, how as Integrity Blues?

Honestly, I'd probably include this record as one of their best. Yeah, like a lot of critics I was surprised how much I ended up enjoying chunks of this record, and not just because the hooks are solid and for once the production feels well-balanced. No, what I got with Integrity Blues is the sort of album that reflects growth and maturity from a songwriting perspective, even to the point where if it seems like it's getting pissy there's a little more going on. And I kind of appreciate how much Jimmy Eat World are aware that these sorts of changes are happening even though most of their fanbase has likely moved on - might be a tad self-satisfied to directly reference it, but it's no less accurate here, especially on this album.

So let's start off with the factor that's always tended to be why I'm not a bigger fan of Jimmy Eat World: Jim Adkins' vocals. Finally it seems like Justin Meldel-Johnsen figured out this guy needs some multi-tracking and smart mix placement to carry against louder, more anthemic instrumentals, and it's definitely appreciated here when we get some of the thickest and heaviest guitarwork the band has ever had. He still sounds a little awkward belting these hooks - you can tell with every quiver that he'd probably prefer to underplay, and there are songs where you're waiting for him to bring it up a notch and you're left wanting, but overall Adkins sounds about as good as he ever has, and that's a big plus.

And I'd also say that's true of a lot of the instrumentation and production. Let's get my nitpicks out of the way first, namely that there are too many points where the drums either feel muffled or overly processed, but even that's ignoring the fact that many if not all of the instruments feels a tad too slick and polished. I'm not wild about the shimmering backing vocals or how so many of the guitar tones blur into one heavenly cloud, for instance, and there are a couple points where the guitar tones are so clear I could swear they match the keyboard flourishes around the edges of this record. But again, you could also compare those moments to the grinding grooves of 'Pretty Grids' or the buzzy scratches of 'Pass The Baby' that eventually break into a Muse-esque mathcore breakdown, or the very clear Muse influence in the guitar tones, progressions, and even parts of the vocal line of 'Get Right'. I have to admit, there's a part of me that feels the brighter tones are a better fit for Jimmy Eat World, if only because of tonal choice in the guitars against the bass melodies, and when accented against the keys on 'It Matters', the echoing piano tone and borderline tremolo riff on the bridge of 'You Are Free', or the great melodic blur of 'The End Is Beautiful'. Hell, when they bring in horns and strings for the title track and 'Pol Roger', the tonal interplay leads to some great melodies, especially in the latter case on the hook. And while there are a few songs that can feel a tad 'meat-and-potatoes', for lack of better words and could use a slightly more defined or embellished melodic hook, more often than not Jimmy Eat World deliver.

But now we have to get to the lyrics, the big reason why Damage fell so flat for me... and really, there's a consistent thematic throughline to this record that I think is fairly well-articulated and realized. Like with Damage there are elements of a breakup narrative, but it's more abstract as it's paired against songs focusing on breaking out of established patterns, shaking up an established plan, going in new directions. And there's a pretty solid thematic parallel there: people tend to fall towards relationships or even established styles as a band because they hold comfort or don't hold a lot of risk - and yet when the fit isn't there, it can curl inwards and feel just as toxic, leading to harsh internal questions and self-doubt at throwing away something established for something nebulous and undetermined. Now that's a solid theme, but it can lead to some awkward moments, most coming on 'Pass The Baby', where the titular child is used as a human shield to deflect Jimmy Eat World from the criticism at taking a new path, a metaphor that doesn't just feel overwrought but also inconsistent with the stasis and insecurity of a song like 'You With Me' - sure, it's the opener, but the progression does not earn that point! But putting that aside, what I liked is how the album shows the partner in this breakup situation being as intuitive to the breakdown if not moreso - you can often tell when it's not working for your partner even if you don't want to say it, which makes the breakdown of internal barriers on 'You Are Free' and the rational, almost amicable split of 'The End Is Beautiful' rather poignant. Now for a while I thought that the immediate follow-up 'Through' didn't work and almost came across as bitchy as the protagonist rejects a tidal wave of dissent and victimization... until you realize that it's an internal monologue and the last gasp of those insecurities burning away. And I really do love the sentiment of the final song 'Pol Roger', where our protagonist gets lost and alone in the park... but he's not lonely, just content in not really having a defined path, and wondering if his former partner - or former fans - feel the same, because when the love is really there, it won't just 'come', it'll be as if it's always been there. Not completely sure if I agree with the sentiment, but it's so well conveyed I find it hard to criticize!

In short, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, and I would probably hold it among Jimmy Eat World's best. It sounds fresh, reinvigorated, and transitional in the best possible way, and while I tend to be more of a fan of Jimmy Eat World's anthemic stuff - and thus am predisposed to like this - the riffs and hooks are good enough that I can see you getting pulled in regardless unless you think it's a tad too polished... which yeah, I'd totally understand. For me, this is a solid 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you've wanted to see Jimmy Eat World refine their sound and grow up a bit in their writing. I'm not sure how many people will care that much about this album, but Jimmy Eat World have made it plain they're going to keep evolving regardless, and for that, I'm entirely onboard.

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