At least on the surface level, the title for Jimmy Eat World ‘s 10th full-length album feels like a proclamation. Surviving. Not many bands know quite as much about surviving as Jimmy Eat World. They’ve weathered a lot over the years: getting dropped by their first major label; being (incorrectly) considered a one-hit wonder by many; being a part of a genre and a music scene that most critics have always written off; touring with Third Eye Blind, apparently. Perhaps the most impressive thing they’ve survived is time. When I first started seriously listening to Jimmy Eat World, they’d been a band for ten years and were about to release the follow-up to their breakthrough LP. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the band is celebrating 25 years and ten albums. They’ve kept the same four-person lineup since 1995 and have released a new album, like clockwork, every three years since 2001. And they remain as beloved today as they ever have been—a go-to “favorite band” for seemingly every person who follows them.
Listen to the songs here, though, and it’s clear that the title Surviving is not intended as a self-congratulatory pat on the back. “In a lot of ways, you’re still that lost kid/You can still survive but not exactly live.” Frontman Jim Adkins sings those words in the title track, which opens the record amidst a crunch of guitars that hearkens back to the sound and feel of 2001’s Bleed American. That sonic reference point doesn’t seem like an accident. A lot of us were lost when we came to the music of Jimmy Eat World for the first time. Maybe the band were a little lost themselves, reeling from the label troubles that occurred post-Clarity and wondering if they’d ever hit their big break. A lot of years have passed since then, and a lot of things have happened, but this song seems to ask: “How far have we all really come?”
When I spoke with drummer Zach Lind in the lead-up to this album’s release, he told me that the band arrived at an epiphany of sorts in the middle of this decade. After making Damage—a terrific, sonically-raw breakup album that is nevertheless arguably the least-beloved of the LPs the band has made this century—Jimmy Eat World took a year off. For all of 2015, they played no shows and spent zero days in the recording studio. It was the first true hiatus in their history as a band. When they regrouped in 2016, it was with an understanding that they weren’t just going to make another album for the sake of making another album. If they were going to add a new chapter to their story, it had to say something. It had to mean something. It had to be a piece of work they could hold up to everything else they’d made together and feel honest and justified in calling it some of their greatest art. Said another way, they didn’t just want to survive as a band; they wanted to be vital.
That burst of new purpose led to 2016’s Integrity Blues and now to Surviving, two records that are thematic companions in a lot of ways. Blues had tinges of breakup album in its DNA: it opened with a fracturing relationship and then moved through a sort of existential crisis as the songs delved into searching too hard for happiness, fulfillment, and perfection—always in the wrong places. “The clever ways I try to change/Happen and pass, leaving me the same,” Adkins sang on “Sure and Certain.” By the end of the record, he was withdrawing to a solitary place and finding peace there. Surviving is essentially the sequel. The end of Integrity Blues found closure in being “alone but not lonely,” and in realizing that our ideas of perfection or happiness needn’t be fixed or set in stone. On Surviving, there’s no breakup and only a little romance. Mostly, it’s an album about someone re-calibrating and starting anew.
In an interview with Rocksound, Adkins described the theme of Surviving as a sort of push and pull between complacency and risk. “Every moment of your existence, you have a choice between continuing what you’re doing and doing something different,” he said. “The difference between existing and truly living,” he concluded, was to be willing to make a choice and take a leap of faith. Sometimes, we’re afraid to change the status quo of our own lives, not because we’re afraid things can’t get better but because we’re afraid they might get worse. That fear of failure convinces us to strand ourselves in a holding pattern and to miss out on some of the biggest adventures that life might have to offer. “I think that the encouraging part is that there is a reward for doing something different, when you realize you’re capable of doing so much more than your current situation.”
These songs explore and illuminate that theme in numerous ways. “I’m doing the things that I’m told every day,” Adkins sings in “555,” before asking: “Why does it feel like I’m moving in place?” On “Delivery,” he’s more resolute in his push to take a risk: “Don’t worry where we end up/Cause ending up’s not real/The life we build we never stop creating.” There’s no “Game Over” for venturing outside your comfort zone or daring to fail. There’s just another chapter, and then another one after that. As Integrity Blues explored repeatedly, every person is a work in progress. So why not risk making a mess of things from time to time?
To a cynical ear, this could all sound a little bit like an inspirational self-help seminar. In a way, though, Jimmy Eat World have always been a “self-help” band. Their most famous song has a line in it that goes “Live right now, just be yourself/It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else.” Their albums, for many of us, have been the things we’ve found the most faith in during our darkest moments. So when Jim tells us that it’s okay to risk the thing the majority of us are most desperately afraid of—complete, utter, fall-on-your-face failure—it feels like it’s coming from a friend rather than just some guy in a band.
The beating heart of Surviving is a song called “Diamond,” and it’s about that other thing that really scares people: patience. “That’s how a diamond grows/You give yourself the right chance over time/Don’t believe them if they try to sell you something quicker.” Especially in our fast-paced, internet-obsessed culture, we all want instant gratification. We want someone else to solve our problems. We want the reward and not the work it takes to get there. We want any risks we take to pay out like a slot machine the moment we take them. The chorus in “Diamond” sounds triumphant and huge, like a promise of good things down the road if you make the difficult choices now. But what makes the song great are the verses, which shiver and shake with anxiety and doubt. In the first one, Jim makes a list of things he wants to accomplish someday, but they only seem like distant, vague resolutions. “Should meditate; should work out more/Should read until my brain gets sore/Meet someone; go far away/Try being socially less strange.” He refers to these goals as his “greatest hits,” probably because he’s said them to himself a million times. By the time the second verse rolls around, he’s making the big changes, but he’s not feeling the rewards—at least not yet. It’s the New Year, and he doesn’t feel any different. But then the chorus storms back in, a bold, bright reminder to stay the course.
For 15 years, Jimmy Eat World has been the band always reminding me to stay the course. More than perhaps any other artist, their records have felt synchronized with the moments in which I most needed them. From adolescent crises to long-distance relationships to the last days of college, their music has marked milestones in my life since the day “Kill” unlocked a new level in my love for music. Surviving is the kind of album I need from them now: a clear-eyed, mature record about the complex roadmap of adulthood and how it’s sometimes okay to toss that map in the fire and blaze your own trail. That’s not to say you get to embrace your id or your worst impulses: politically-charged tracks like “Criminal Energy” and “Congratulations” offer a glimpse of what happens when someone takes that plunge. For the most part, though, Surviving is bright, optimistic, guitar-heavy rock ‘n’ roll. It rocks like Bleed American, hopes for better like Futures, and finds the clarity that Clarity only aspired to in title. Most of all, it’s a reminder that even a quarter-century in, Jimmy Eat World can still be the soundtrack to our lives.