OTR, Take 32: Jimmy Eat World - Clarity

It happens too fast, to make sense of it, make it last

My baby brother is getting married in a week. (Click here to listen to this week's record as you read.) This has had me thinking a good bit about how much seven years in age difference can mean when you're 14 and 7 and how little it means when you're 42 and 35. About how, despite the fact that we're both adults now with jobs (well, he has a job) and animals of our own, spouses that we've conned into marrying us, there's still a lingering, perhaps permanent, aspect of our relationship that turns on the axis of younger/older sibling.

I've been thinking quite a bit about how certain accidents shape who we become. I'm the oldest of four, and though it's a bit of a stereotype, birth order does make a difference in who we are. It wasn't until I was about 25 that I realized that all of my very close friends – without exception – were also eldest children. We are the experimental children, the ones parents don't yet know won't break at the slightest thing going wrong. The ones who had to discover music for ourselves and had to sneak out of the house to establish for our younger siblings that it was okay to stay out past 8 pm.

We were also the ones who got more unmitigated attention when we were really young from our parents, when there were two of them to one kid – before the days of having to play zone defense or being completely outgunned when the fourth arrived.

Eldest children tend to be a bit more Type A, a little more driven in obnoxious ways than younger siblings. A little more self-sufficient. A little harder.

Now, none of this holds universally true. YMMV.

Not asking of me anything,
Saying nothing about what it means,
Without anybody telling me
How I should feel.

Neill and I bonded over music. One of the joys of being the oldest is the work of discovering your own things: music, books, movies. Another joy is sharing what you've found with your younger siblings, curating their taste. One thing I tried to do with my brothers (my sister, whom I love dearly, wanted nothing to do with the music I listened to or the books I read) was offer up music without saying much about it, without explaining it or offering my opinions on it.

In 1994, when Neill was six, I introduced him to both Sonic Youth and my bloody valentine. He went back to listening to Sheryl Crow. Perhaps he wasn't quite ready for When You Sleep. But he developed a keen ear for music. I began playing guitar when he was seven. A few years later our brother Conor decided he wanted to play bass, so I bought a bass for him. Conor found out playing an instrument is harder than it is cool, and gave it up. But Neill showed interest and picked it up.

You're not bigger than this, not better
Why can't you learn?

When I left for college, Neill was eleven. A baby. We didn't have a huge amount in common due to that chasm in age. But when I came home the next summer, he'd grown up a lot (and I, uh...let's just say I probably became less mature during my freshman year). After I'd settled back in, he walked up to my room and asked what new music I had.

Today's album is the first thing I played for him. It's one of my absolute favorite records ever made.

I promised I'd see it again

Jimmy Eat World formed in 1993 and recorded a bunch of punk music of middling quality. They made their major label debut (remeber when labels mattered?) in 1996 with Static Prevails, a good-not-great album that slowed things down abit and showed a pretty heavy Sunny Day Real Estate influence. (Some trivia for those who geek out on indie/emo music of this era: Capital flew the band up to Seattle to record demos with Jon Auer of The Posies and Mark Trombino of Drive Like Jehu produced both Static Prevails and Clarity, despite the fact that Capitol wanted Tom Rothnock and Rob Schnapf, who produced Foo Fighters and Beck, to man the boards.)

Anyway, there wasn't a whole lot of evidence from Jimmy Eat World's output prior to Clarity's release in 1999 to indicate what was coming. They were a middling, competent band.

Take in restraint like a breath
My lungs are so numb from holding back

But something happened between 1996 and 1999 that just fundamentally changed the band. For one, Jim Adkins takes over most of the vocal duties. Yes, friends: the signature voice of the band was a backing vocalist until Clarity. But something else happened too, an alchemy that shifted the band from second wave emo and the heavy guitar-driven sound to in my mind the finest third-wave emo record made.

The guitars are still there, but listen to the opener, "Table for Glasses" and follow the construction of the song from the opening synth to the simple yet almost too-loud drums that come in. Tell me your heart doesn't swell when the bass comes in at the second verse, almost comically pronounced, right there booming through your chest. I can almost imagine Trombino in the control room just sliding up the bass track in the mix, daring anyone to tell him to stop.

And then, the vocal layers, the impossibly thick harmonies. This shit was sui generis at the time, the mixture and particular recipe of this just bowled me over when I first heard this sitting on the floor of a dorm room on the second floor of East Hall at Denison University.

I sat there with my buddy Dave (who I played in bands with for nearly ten years) and a fellow named Tom, who transferred after that year. I am forever indebted to Tom, for he introduced me to both Jimmy Eat World and Built to Spill. I often wonder what became of him...I saw him once in passing at a Radiohead show in 2001. Funny how certain people have such profound, yet fleeting, places in our lives.

Saturday morning tableau

In June 2000, Neill came up to my third-floor bedroom and, in something of a mirror of my first listening, I invited him to sit on the ground as I picked my Clarity CD (remember those?) from my gigantic CD binder (remember those?) and slipped it into my boombox (remember those?!). We listened to the album from beginning to end without saying a word, which wasn't unusual for us. Out of my siblings, he and I listen to music the same way, obsessively.

As the extended outro of "Goodbye Sky Harbor" came to a close, he asked me if it was cool if we listened to it again.

I'll take your words as if you were talking to me
So say what I know you'll say
And say it through your teeth

When Clarity was released, it received the honor of a 3.5 on Pitchfork (then still a little indie zine) and a fairly scathing review. That review didn't age well. In fact, Pitchfork went back and memory holed the review and replaced it with a brand new one. The band noticed.

I remember actually being upset about the review; back in my younger days, I got worked up about such things. To this day, when people find out how much I love Jimmy Eat World, I get a lot of, "You mean that 'The Middle' pop band?" And, yeah: 1) that song fucking rocks, and 2) I was just as surprised as anybody when Jimmy Eat World, of all bands, hit it big. I will defend them with my life, especially this album.

Certain albums find a way of contriving ways to be involved in impactful moments of your life. Clarity is one of those albums for me. Different songs immediately conjure events: "Just Watch the Fireworks" on repeat while I walked around Denison's campus in June 2001 after I learned that my grandmother passed away; "Clarity" evokes the times my band covered this, toward the end of our sets, with sweat burning my eyes; "Blister" takes me to my dorm sophomore year, Pratt playing it loud and screaming the chorus "and how long would it take me to walk across the United States allllll alone?"; "For Me this is Heaven" to playing the Music Game (we pick a theme and take turns adding songs on theme to the queue) with my wife for the first time. She generally doesn't love my music, but said: "this one is really nice." And melted my heart.

And so, with my baby brother's wedding nearly upon us, Clarity is again front and central. I started writing this at 7 am as usual, but have been in and out of it all day, finishing up after 3:30 pm. I've spun the record at least four times, and I'm about to place the need back town on "Table for Glasses" – a song I associate closely with Neill. When I first played the album for him, he was just beginning to learn bass. When the bass kicked in on that second straight listen that hot June afternoon all the way back in 2000, he remarked, "That sounds soooo good."

You're damned right, man. You're damned right. Here's to you and Emily!

When the time we have now ends
When the big hand goes round again
Can you still feel the butterflies?
Can you still hear the last goodnight?

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