Some songs just linger in the cultural bloodstream. It’s impossible to predict, in the moment, which songs those will be. Occasionally, it’s the big hits, but it’s also often those same world-conquering smashes that end up sounding the most dated in retrospect. Usually, you have to wait years or even decades to see which songs have truly become songbook classics, once all the context and narrative and hype and promotion has drifted into distant memory. You have to get to the point where all that remains is the song itself and the mysterious, beguiling hold it somehow continues to have over people.
There’s a spectacular cover band in my hometown that mostly plays songs from the classic rock era. It’s not hard to see why: Those songs have been proven staples for so long that building a setlist around them is just a smart business decision. You can’t miss with “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “American Girl.” You can’t miss with The Beatles or The Stones. There are precisely two post-2000 songs that I remember regularly hearing in the setlist from this particular cover band. The first one was “Mr. Brightside.”
The second was “The Middle.”
“The Middle” was a gargantuan radio rock hit when I was in fifth grade, but I’m not sure I would have bet on it becoming one of the most durable songs of my lifetime. After all, there were a lot of other radio rock hits from that same era—Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment,” maybe, or The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go,” or Five For Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”—that are rarely lionized today, in any fashion. But “The Middle” lasted. Its fame in the moment—blasting up the Hot 100 (it made it to number five), becoming the 14th biggest hit of 2002, earning veritable “song of the summer” honors that same year—was just the tip of the iceberg. When Pitchfork listed their top 500 songs of the 2000s, “The Middle” clocked in at number 165, despite Pitchfork initially the thrashing the album it came from with a 3.5 review. In 2016, when Taylor Swift appeared in an Apple Music commercial, she introduced “The Middle,” 15 years on, by saying “I loved this song, I used to listen to it in middle school!”
These days, “The Middle” is practically a classic rock staple. It’s probably on your Spotify nostalgia playlist. They still play it on radio from time to time. You’ll hear it a lot at weddings. A cover band at some bar somewhere in America is almost certainly playing it right now. It’s about as accepted a part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon as I remember early 1980s rock staples like “Hungry Heart” or “The Waiting” or “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “Start Me Up” were at the time, as they crossed or neared their 20-year anniversaries.
None of this was a given. Jimmy Eat World came into “The Middle”—and into Bleed American more generally—as what was technically a “failed” band. They’d had a two-album dalliance with a major label, Capitol Records, but had undersold on their major label debut (1996’s Static Prevails) and had failed to expand their commercial scope much with the 1999 LP Clarity (despite a soundtrack feature in the Drew Barrymore film Never Been Kissed and a slightly more palatable-to-radio sound). They were also, for all intents and purposes, a musical outfit that looked distinctly unmarketable as the early 2000s pop cultural landscape unfolded, and as their brand of emotional pop-rock fell further and further out of vogue. This album arrived several years before pop-punk and emo music started taking off in the mainstream, which could have easily doomed it. “Are you listening?” frontman Jim Adkins would sing on one of Bleed American’s most famous tracks; in 2001, the answer could have all too easily been “No.”
But Bleed American was a different animal than Clarity or anything else this band had ever made before. On Clarity, Jimmy Eat World had exploded the canvas, taking what they saw as probably their last chance ever to blow a big major label budget on a passion project. They made the most of that opportunity by making an ultra-ambitious album loaded with every instrument they could think to throw in there—a symphony of sound and wistful chaos that, for some fans, remains the truest Jimmy Eat World album. When Capitol dropped them and it came time to make something else, without the big budget, the guys in the band dialed back their own ambitions and shot for something a little closer to planet earth. They told the Dallas Observer: “Rather than challenging ourselves [by] getting real experimental, we kind of went in the other direction, challenging ourselves by getting very simple.”
As it turned out, simplicity was key. “The Middle” was an appropriate calling card for the collection: a song about not writing yourself off, by a band taking another shot after getting beat up a little, that just happened to become a world-beating hit single. But Bleed American is so much more than its iconic big hit. If Clarity was Jimmy Eat World’s epic orchestral emo classic, then Bleed American is where they mastered the art of pop songcraft. Bands like Green Day, Weezer, and Blink-182 had shown that you could pair punk bona-fides with a truly innate gift for melody, and this album made it clear that Jimmy Eat World had that gift too. Practically every song on the album sports an undeniable hook. The title track bursts with thrashy aggression, but finds room for a singalong chorus. Songs like “If You Don’t, Don’t” and “Your House” make romantic disaster sound candy-coated and technicolor, so splendid are the melodies. “Sweetness” is arguably nothing but a pair of choruses, calling and responding to one another, colliding repeatedly until you can’t get either out of your head. Even the ballads are packed with earworms.
It would have been easy to see Bleed American as a sellout record—and I’m sure some Jimmy Eat World fans who jumped aboard with Static Prevails or Clarity absolutely did. So much of it was so poppy, so slick, so radio. On first blush, at least, it could have felt like a betrayal of what had made this band special. After all, on Clarity, it’s the balance between the pristine beauty of the production and the arrangements, and the slightly rough-around-the-edges feel of the songs, that lends the album its urgency, its intimacy, its emotive power. But look beyond the studio sheen and the mainstream success and Bleed American still has all those things. It still has the songs that feel like they were designed to be listened to in your bedroom after you got your heart broken, or to be repackaged onto mixtapes (read: burned CDs full of Napster mp3s) for your crush, or to be scrawled on notebook covers as you whiled away the time in sixth-period history when you should have been paying attention to whatever the hell your teacher was saying.
Over the years, my favorite song on Bleed American has shifted repeatedly. Early on, it was hard not to get swept up in the riptide of “The Middle.” Later, I fell for “Hear You Me” and the way it distilled pain and mourning into such a powerful exorcism of grief. Nowadays, “If You Don’t, Don’t” is the one I always have to play at least twice every time I listen to the record, just to marvel at how it packs nuance and rich, scene-setting details into a wrenching tale of a relationship that can’t withstand one partner’s ambivalence. But if I had to pick a defining song from this record, for me, it would be the last one—and isn’t that just like Jimmy Eat World? A band, at this point, already in the midst of building a reputation for dynamite closing tracks?
Where many Jimmy Eat World closers aim for big emotional bombast, “My Sundown” is beautifully restrained—the musical equivalent of soft rays of light from a gorgeous sunset shining into your car as you drive down the highway, probably away from something that meant the world to you and toward a new beginning. “I said my goodbyes, this is my sundown/I’m gonna be so much more than this,” Jim Adkins sings early in the song, before getting to the downbeat chorus: “With one hand high, you’ll show them your progress/You’ll take your time, but no one cares.”
I’ve always adored that line. I think it’s human nature to think about how other people will react to the things you do, to your accomplishments. Will they be impressed? Will they congratulate you? Admire you? Reminisce about the you they used to know before you became something admirable? Before you became “more than this”? We’re all the stars of our own movies. We’d like to view everyone else as the supporting players, reacting to what we do. In reality, though, people are usually too busy with their own stories to pay much mind to ours, which means you always end up disappointed when you want to “show them your progress.” On the one hand, “My Sundown” is crushing, because it recognizes a brutal truth: Not only are other people not the supporting characters in your movie, but they’re usually not even watching. On the other hand, though, that revelation is also kind of liberating, because it means that you are freer of other people’s expectations or impressions of you than you ever believe in your head. And it means that the failures that feel like they might break you in half—getting dropped from your label, perhaps—don’t have to mean you’re down for the count.
Growing up, I gravitated to that line about showing off your progress because I wanted people to care about what I accomplished. I thought “My Sundown” was about the validation that comes after personal growth. Now, I see the song for what it is: Not about the validation, and maybe not even about the growth, but about the self-driven journey to get there. It hammers home what I think is the message of Bleed American as a whole: “Live right now, just be yourself/It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough/For someone else.”
Those messages can scan as corny when written down on paper, but what makes them so resonant on this album is the context. Jimmy Eat World made Bleed American after their (first) major label dreams had come to a close, on their own dime, with no idea what kind of platform it would be given. Producer Mark Trombino worked for free on the faith that someone would believe in the record enough to release it. No wonder so much of the album seems to be about believing in yourself and forging on, regardless of whether anyone is listening, and regardless of whether anyone else cares. And no wonder it feels that much more powerful 20 years later, knowing that it would be the album that made Jimmy Eat World stars and that gave them the creative capital and freedom to keep trucking for another two decades.
Among the die-hard Jimmy Eat World fanbase, Clarity and Futures maybe seem more beloved, but Bleed American still runs the table at the live show. At minimum, you’ll probably hear “The Middle,” “Sweetness,” “A Praise Chorus,” and “Bleed American” every time Jimmy Eat World is on a bill. “Hear You Me,” “Get It Faster,” “The Authority Song,” and “If You Don’t, Don’t” aren’t setlist rarities either. These tracks have remained a part of the Jimmy Eat World live experience, even though the band has released six full-length albums in the 20 years since. And it’s not that hard to see why. Something about screaming along to these songs with other people feels uniquely life-affirming—like we’re all reminding ourselves, in unison, not to write ourselves off yet.