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Why is Third Eye Blind so popular again?

August 24, 2009 |  1:26 pm

Third Eye Blind

Most artists with an inkling that their new album might top the charts probably lie awake the night before its release like a kid expecting an air rifle on Christmas morning. But Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins practically snoozed right through it.

“We just got back from touring Indonesia, and last week we played the Fox in Oakland, which is kind of our hometown. And we played the new album and had a huge party afterwards,” said Jenkins. “I fell asleep and woke up to someone from our label calling me to say, ‘I can’t believe you’re sleeping through a No. 1 record!’ ”

 “Ursa Major,” the pop-rock band’s newest album of effervescent choruses and vinegary machine-gun lyricism, topped the iTunes album chart last week and should be a strong contender for the same slot on the Billboard album charts this week (it was released last Tuesday).

But Third Eye Blind’s late success begs a certain question -- what’s the band doing there at all? “Ursa” is its first album in six years, out on its own label and with no trendsetting winds in its sails.

Any passing glimpse into the dollar bins of guitar pop in the late '90s would likely find some Third Eye Blind. Jenkins’ melodicism disguised some needling, often bleak lyrics, but singles “Semi-Charmed Life” and “Jumper” sounded practically Clintonian in their hooky, centrist optimism. There was no overarching story to Third Eye Blind: They came to popularity at that odd time between grunge’s ascendancy and the Internet’s decimation of pop radio monoculture.

Few critics will look back on the mid- to late '90s as a stellar age in rock music, and to a lot of people, Third Eye Blind typified that vague sense that everyone was waiting to see what would come next. Their Billboard singles chart success far and away peaked on their self-titled debut and continued to less effect on the followup “Blue." The band was soon dropped from Elektra in the great early-aughts label shuffle. After a multi-platinum self-titled breakthrough, the band’s cachet seemed to drop off with each succeeding record.

Until now. Aside from some lineup changes, the band remains much the same aesthetically as when it left off in 2003. Yet something has apparently shifted in their audience, something that looks a lot like a rediscovery. But it’s not the unearthing of a then-obscure act like the Pixies, or a sort of contrarian wink-nudge like the late Hall & Oates comeback. It’s a rediscovery of a once very famous, then swiftly neglected rock band attached to no narrative or scene, hundreds and hundreds of which litter the graveyard of popular music.

So, who is returning to them today, and how?

“It’s college kids sharing our songs across campus networks on their campuses,” says Jenkins. “Our agent at CAA looked at this, and found that we’re one of the most requested bands to plays shows on campuses.”

It's not just undergrads, apparently; according to a band spokesperson, "Ursa Major" first leaked last week after a group of hackers illicitly obtained the album. What’s interesting in that former demographic, though, is that late teenagers and early twentysomethings were probably listening to pop radio when Third Eye Blind was famous the first time. If you’re 25 now, Third Eye Blind was still very much a staple on radio in your tweens.

This is a different dynamic than dusting off Dad’s Kinks albums and discovering Ray Davies’ wit, or finding out that the orchestral midpoint in the Beatles' “ A Day In The Life” is actually really freaky. In the typical trajectory of taste, you expand outward and listen wider and to more difficult material. But this looks like nostalgia for the mainstream pop hits of your early teens when you’re only a few years removed from such.

You could chalk it up to the virtuosic navel-gazing of the Facebook generation, whose self-regard for its own passing cultural experiences bests even that of the boomers. Or maybe it’s some latent youthful desire for straightforward rock music in such an artistically fractured and celebrity-centric time in pop.

But then again, maybe you can’t. As Mikael Wood noted in his review, “Ursa Major” has some interesting things going for it. Jenkins’ unusual spitfire delivery packs an awful lot of ideas into one verse, and he always leavens it with an enormous chorus that often shares a lot more with the Who and R.E.M. than some might admit. And though Jenkins once wrote a song with the perennial pop chorus of “Doot doot doot, doot duh doot doo,” his lyrics reward parsing for their bitter and often black-humored musings on addiction, romantic foibles and human depravity. In conversation, he speaks eloquently about the different socio-political ramifications of terrorism in Indonesia as opposed to America. Bands such as Panic! At the Disco have expressed unlikely yet unselfconscious admiration for Jenkins’ song craft. Was Third Eye Blind more durable than we thought?

“I feel like we’ve had our identity returned to us,” Jenkins said. “We’ve always been subversive, and early on we got lumped in with this group of artists that we had nothing to do with; it wasn’t an image of us that we recognized. All that was left after that went away was the music. The audiences now are all 15- to 25-year-olds, and us in our 30s are the dowagers.”

As the band warms up for its “Ursa” duties, Jenkins is grateful that what by all reasons should have been a footnote in the arc of pop has turned into a sturdy, resurgent career. It seems odd to say this about a multi-platinum act, but you might even call them an underground sensation. That’s a testament to the band’s resilience, but it’s just as much proof of how wide the ground is for a band to be under today.

-- August Brown

Third Eye Blind photo by Eva Kolenko