It’s been a little while since I decided to start this venture. There’s been no lack of inspiration, and a number of new posts are planned over the next week or so that should demonstrate that. I’ve chosen to return to action with my first ever off-topic post. It might seem a strange choice on a travel-centred blog, but I’ll be discussing my thoughts on what is probably my favourite album, why I like it so much, and what impact it has had upon me.
There are two things I can remember best about 1999. The first is Manchester United snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich to secure an unprecedented treble. The other is the release of Jimmy Eat World’s third studio album, Clarity. It’s safe to say that the latter has had a considerably bigger influence on my adult life than the former, for while the 14-year-old me might have thought it doesn’t get any better than watching your footballing heroes win three trophies in a season, the grown-up in me, such as it is, knows there’s a little more to life than that.
Of course, like most people – including plenty of the band’s fans – I don’t really remember the release of Clarity at all. Aside from a modest collection of dedicated fans who’d found the band in their early hardcore days, this was well before they had achieved any commercial success. As Clarity flew under the radar in the United States, the chances of a 14-year-old kid living on the north west coast of England coming across it were pretty slim.
Fast-forward sixteen years, however, and what you have is a record often regarded as one of the finest of the 1990s, not just within its genre, but of the decade as a whole. Whether that holds true or not, I don’t care to say. But what cannot be ignored is the influence that the record has had on a plethora of younger artists and contemporaries alike. Clarity is often cited as a personal favourite and a source of inspiration.
I only found out just how highly the album was regarded well after I’d fallen in love with it in my own right. I’ve often wondered if there’s something odd about my relationship with music. I can count on the two hands I was given the amount of records that I return to on a regular basis. Beyond that, I find it a struggle to really connect with most of what I hear, no matter how objectively worthy it might be. So why does Clarity speak to me in the way that it does?
It’s a remarkable piece of work in terms of scope, especially given that the band members were barely out of their teens when it was produced. Jim Adkins’ vocals soar – he has an ability to tug at the heartstrings without ever sounding insincere or overly-wrought. The album possesses beautiful harmonies, raucous louder moments, considered and sometimes thought-provoking lyrics (Your New Aesthetic rings even more true today than did in 1999), and strings and piano to die for (For Me This Is Heaven, Just Watch the Fireworks). The experimentation with electronic elements enhances rather than cheapens the sound, perhaps because it is employed only sparingly and rather deftly. Meanwhile, closing track Goodbye Sky Harbor takes the listener on a near-twenty minute journey, beginning with chugging guitars before descending into an instrumental loop interspersed with vocal harmonies, rounded out by an electronic beat that makes you forget it’s the same song as the one that started a quarter of an hour ago.
Picking highlights from an album I’d consider near-perfect is difficult. The most obvious radio fodder is lead single Lucky Denver Mint, easily the most recognisable track from the album, having found its way onto the soundtrack to Drew Barrymore masterpiece Never Been Kissed. But in truth, it isn’t indicative of the album as a whole. Your New Aesthetic is the darkest moment, a crunchy, snarling condemnation of the era’s watered down commercialised radio output. Believe in What you Want offers an enthusiastic, charming bouncy stop-startiness, with some of the most striking harmonies on the album. A Sunday slow-burns its way to greatness, while Just Watch the Fireworks, For Me This is Heaven and the album’s title track keep it interesting all the way to the end.
When all is said and done, perhaps my affection for this album stems from the fact that there are truly no low points. The band was in sparkling form – comfortable enough to experiment, to eschew the overly-polished and safe sound that has become their trademark in more recent years, this was a band without the shackles on. It was 2001’s Bleed American that brought Jimmy Eat World mainstream recognition. It’s fair to say a sizable chunk of the band’s following, myself included, came along during this period, which turned out to be their high point in terms of popularity. A more commercial and polished sound, Bleed American also curried favour with critics, though in a rather different way to its predecessor. It signalled a change in direction which probably contributed to maintaining Clarity‘s place in the band’s back catalogue – as the hidden gem that only those of us lucky enough to know of its existence get to enjoy.
Clarity, a modern masterpiece.