Since their aptly titled 1996 major-label debut Static Prevails, Jimmy Eat World have experimented with pop music's basic formula, adding high-voltage injections of fuzzed-out guitars to the mix. The band blasted into the mainstream with 2001's Bleed American and the ubiquitous alt-rock anthem "The Middle," which promoted the group's love for speedy riffs, heavy reverb, and lots of adolescent rollicking.
But underneath all that emo and hardcore guitar static, Jimmy Eat World wrote very sleek pop songs. That's never been more evident than on their seventh album, last year's Invented, on which the four friends from Mesa, Arizona, scale back their six-string assault to reveal a more mellow side.
"There's a lot less guitar brutality," admits frontman Jim Adkins. "I'm not sure where that comes from. Maybe I'm getting old. Rock is definitely important to us, but you've got to try different things all the time. We have done a whole lot of stuff with guitars, but who knows? Maybe we'll make a metal record next. There might be a backlash against all this mellow stuff."
That's not to say Invented doesn't pack a few volcanic guitar eruptions (check out "Action Needs an Audience"), but most of the album is filled with finely polished, radio-friendly power pop. Perhaps the transformation has something to do with the way the band wrote the new record.
While putting the finishing touches on their previous album, 2006's Chase This Light, Adkins became immersed in two books — Cindy Sherman's The Complete Untitled Film Stills and Hannah Starkey's Photographs 1997-2007. He began using photos from them as writing exercises for his lyrics, creating back stories for the images.
"I was just trying a lot of different things to get my brain working," he says. "Not necessarily to gather material for songs, but just get it working. I was randomly picking a photograph and thinking of a theme — the characters, who they're interacting with, who's off-camera, the whole story. Then later we'd be at the studio working on music, and some of the interesting ideas from those writing sessions would creep into the songs we were working on."
The result is an album full of multiple personalities. "Cut" is a lonely acoustic breakup ballad, emulsified in cinematic ether; "My Best Theory" is an ultra-sleek space-rock anthem that wouldn't sound out of place in the new Transformers movie. The best melodies actually come late on the album: "Mixtape" and "Invented" are arty, atmospheric, six-plus-minute slow jams that totally diverge from the Jimmy Eat World cosmos.
To help bridge these new grooves with old fans, Jimmy Eat World reconnected with Mark Trombino, who produced 1999's Clarity and Bleed American, the band's most popular albums. When they stopped in San Diego during their sold-out 10th-anniversary tour, they asked Trombino to tinker with their new ideas.
"There aren't a whole lot of people we're comfortable working with besides Mark," says Adkins, who's also worked with Gil Norton (the Pixies) and Butch Vig (Nirvana). "We're at the point where I don't think we necessarily need or want a producer around all the time, but it is kind of nice to get bigger-picture affirmation or criticism from people that we respect."
The blueprint seems to be working. Since Clarity, Jimmy Eat World have sold millions of records, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and toured the world with the Foo Fighters, Green Day, and Weezer. And even though Invented roams some new realms of meditative pop, the band is still capable of creating cathartic blasts of noise and rhythm — guitars as the sound of timeless adolescence.
It's one of the reasons Jimmy Eat World's songs are so popular in video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Just don't ask Adkins to play. "I did try singing [the Bleed American single] 'Sweetness' on Rock Band," he laughs. "I thought it was going to be easy, so I put it on 'Expert,' and I failed in like 17 seconds. It's funny because over the years I started doing it differently — singing different melodies, using slightly different phrasing. But you're singing against the record, which is this thing you did 10 years ago."
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