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Jimmy Eat World reprises 'Clarity' live. Why is this record so un-killable?

November 10, 2008 |  5:45 pm

The unexpectedly canonical status of Jimmy Eat World's 1999 album "Clarity" among turn-of-the-millennium emo kids must be a total mind-melt for the band. Their crunchy 1996 breakthrough album "Static Prevails" had a few neat singles, and I remember swooning pretty hard for the ambitious follow-up around my junior year of high school (not coincidentally, around the same time I started lobbying in vain for permission to get a lip ring).

But the fact that the band's fans still have enough goodwill toward that album to warrant a 10-date tour playing "Clarity" from front to back (including a Club Nokia stop on March 6) is astonishing for a 10-year-old record that had no real radio hits and prompted Capitol to dump the band. That move inadvertently set up the band's unlikely comeback that nearly single-handily made "emo" shorthand for "guitar-based music that doesn't sound like Hinder that gets radio play."

So why has "Clarity" stuck around this long?

The obvious comparison for a late-from-the-blocks '90s emo-grandfathering album is Weezer's "Pinkerton." The difference, though, is that Weezer's debut had three charting rock hits and Rivers Cuomo's frayed nerves and cardigan-based charisma had made him a star before that. Jimmy Eat World were the exact opposite.

"Clarity" was hugely indebted to the Sunny Day Real Estate and Shudder to Think schools, where dense production and wan moods take precedence over hooks. For all his talents, J.E.W. frontman Jim Adkins isn't exactly Axl Rose on the volatile-figure scale. One noted chorus from "Clarity" goes "Can you still feel the butterflies? Can you still hear the last good nights?" Rivers Cuomo and his Japanese teen-fetishizing looks like Charles Bronson compared to this.

It's been a few years since I cracked open "Clarity," but the one thing I remember every angle-banged kid saying about the album was that "it takes you on a trip." I will definitely cede that to the Arizona band.

Every song seems written and recorded on entirely different instruments, with some stabs at U2-like transcendence ("Lucky Denver Mint"), pristine off-time weepers ("For Me This Is Heaven"), gnarled Shellac-style riffing ("Your New Aesthetic") and a closing tune inspired by John Irving's novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Credit producer Mark Trombino for tying it all together and cementing his rep as the go-to guy for when your band cashes out of your Victory Records deal to jump to a major label.

If you're spending a lot time commuting, say, home to the Valley from all-ages emo shows in West Hollywood, there's little better late-night driving music for teenagers than "Clarity." And maybe the sheer fact that it wasn't a radio smash lent it a certain shared-secret-document quality for those who got their hands on it before Panic at the Disco went and got all world-owning. Even though it was on Capitol, it felt like a small indie album precisely because it was so ignored in the media and by the label.

Practically every band enjoying the emo boom today cites "Clarity" as a defining record growing up, and that makes sense. It's sort of an introduction to epic-ness that played by pop-punk structures while also upping the "prettiness" ante -- essential for sensitive young fellows trying to steal second base in the back of a Volvo station wagon. While it probably doesn't warrant any huge critical re-assessment, if Fall Out Boy is one of the defining new rock bands of the latter half of the millennium's first decade (and they are), the legacy of "Clarity" has longer legs than Jimmy Eat World foes might admit.

Of course, the band then went on to become rock-radio staples and album-art botchers in their own right, but only after paring down to a simpler, harder-edged guitar sound and shepherding deep-voiced guitarist Tom Linton away from the microphone. In short, by becoming more like all the bands that grew up on "Clarity."

But that album -- reissued as an expanded edition in 2007 -- is a weird testament to the power of teenagers to latch onto a record and, against all discouragement and indifference from the market and taste-makers, to push it back into relevance with sheer will and numbers. This anniversary tour will be like a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion for a big swath of young rock kids, and while it's not likely to become an underwear party, it'll be a validation for anyone who salved a breakup by putting "Just Watch the Fireworks" on loop.

-August Brown