By Liz Tracy
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At the dawn of 2011, Jimmy Eat World is one of the few rock bands to blow the hell up out of the early-'90s indie-rock (even, perhaps, the proto-emo) scene without later getting bashed for selling out. The group's longevity — nearly 18 continuous years as a band, with new studio albums appearing regularly every two or three years — has fed both its critical and commercial success.
In the first couple of years after its formation in 1993, the band was still largely an inward-looking, punk-derived act, playing with bands now legendary — at least at the cult level — like Sense Field and Mineral, whereas its critically acclaimed 1999 album, Clarity, invoked endless moist-eyed nostalgia across the blogosphere on its recent tenth anniversary. Plus, even if 2001's Bleed American isn't an immediately recognizable title, the hooks of lead single "The Middle" have kept it embedded on modern rock radio playlists to this day.
If all of this didn't happen exactly by accident, it also didn't come from any calculated plan for domination or mainstream success, to hear guitarist/vocalist and founding member Tom Linton tell it. "Even when we were signed, we didn't get, like, a big budget," he says by phone recently from his home in Mesa, Arizona, the band's birthplace and base. "One of the main things is we also just kept trying to write the best songs that we could."
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The latest result of these efforts is Jimmy Eat World's seventh full-length effort, Invented, released last September on Interscope. (The band wound up on the label after Bleed American, once the Dreamworks/Geffen juggernaut dissolved.) Naturally, it's a further microevolution of the band's signature caffeinated rock, although it preserves most of its familiar hallmarks: just enough mellow acoustic consideration to temper the high-octane, distorted power chords, all wrapped up in tightly wound production.
At the same time, it's one of the band's most narrative and lyrically experimental albums. Rather than always go for the obvious feel-good message or the easy recounting of personal relationship struggles, the songs on Invented feel more cinematic in scope. Though they're usually sung in the first person by frontman and lyricist Jim Adkins, they're often clearly told from a character's point of view. "Coffee & Cigarettes," for one, recounts a "townie kid" going westward bound, while "Littlething" seems to capture a moment of loneliness in the life of a 9-to-5 drone.
It's a sense that's heightened particularly by a recurring female voice, courtesy of a young Phoenix, Arizona, singer/songwriter named Courtney Marie Andrews. She appears on five of the album's 12 tracks, adding a throaty, slightly wounded but hopefully female perspective to the record. "Even for the last maybe ten years, we've had female vocals, but this time, it's the most we've used on a record," Linton says. "I just think that the songs that we have worked out well with her voice and Jim's."
That may be oversimplifying, something that the modest Linton tends to do. For instance, though he started out as the band's lead singer on its earliest material, Invented features the first song on which he sings lead in at least a decade, "Action Needs an Audience."
"Jim was kind of bogged down writing lyrics for the other songs, and he had a melody already done for it," he says. "I ended up writing lyrics for it, and everybody was happy." That's it. Oh, and the song's about brainwashing, but why, he can't say. "I have no idea," he says, chuckling. "There was nothing that really happened to make me write a song about brainwashing."
Despite all these changes, the record did look back to the band's roots in one aspect, through a reunion with producer Mark Trombino. The former Drive Like Jehu drummer helped shape the band's sound by producing its first three studio albums and selected works afterward (including the title single off Bleed American).
The band, did, however, find a new way of working with him. Jimmy Eat World stayed put in its home studio while Trombino remained ensconced in L.A., save for about a week when he physically visited them to put some finishing touches on the tracks. "We would be in the studio and work out a song, and at the end of the night, we would email him what we did that day. Then he would write us back and give us his notes," Linton says. "We could send him a lot of the music files, and he was able to write keyboard parts or make any changes arrangementwise using the computer."
But while all of these new developments and arrangements worked well for the band this time around, almost everything about Jimmy Eat World's next record remains up in the air. The band might record it the way it did this one, or it might not. It might write a record similar to this one, and it might not.
Most significantly, the band might release it itself, or it might not. With Invented, the band's contract with Interscope has run out, and the band remains, technically, independent. "There's been a little bit of talk about releasing it ourselves," Linton says. "But we'd be open to signing to a major again. I guess it just depends on what kind of record we make."
At least some of that will pick up where Invented left off, as the band regularly saves outtakes from one session and reworks them in the next, Linton says. "My Best Theory," the lead single from Invented, for instance, was written during the sessions for Chase This Light. Similarly, there are at least three or four lyricless orphans already structured that could make it into the next set of finished songs.
Either way, this kind of nonplanning will, likely, continue to serve the band well, and the guys certainly aren't changing their methods this late in the game. "We usually just wait until we finish with the tour," Linton says, "and then we start working on new stuff."