It’s always been astounding to me the way that songs, albums, lyrics, melodies, instrumental lines—even album titles or cover art—can become more than the sum of their parts when they collide with the right listener at the right time. In a world full of critical acclaim, “best of the year” lists, and verbose Pitchfork reviews, it seems that we have stumbled into an age of relative consensus. How many publications ranked Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE or Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D.City at number one last December? Or went with Bon Iver the year before? Or Kanye West in 2010? Few collective outlets, at least within the inner circle of the big critical players, venture too far beyond the same five or six favorite records at the end of any given year. Sure, those same publications review hundreds and hundreds of albums and hand out great scores to a lot of up-and-coming obscurities, but from looking at the top ten lists scattered across the web each year, it seems like the idea of an objective “best album of the year” is becoming more and more corporeal.
But what is objectivity in art? What benchmarks decide which collections of songs deserve the title of “best” in any given year? And why have some genres become punching bags for critics while others have earned adjectives such as “credible,” “relevant,” “important,” or “great”? Perhaps all of this is strange to me because my own personal album of the year has never once matched up with the consensus choice, but I don’t actually believe that objectivity and art, music especially, can exist side-by-side. We all look for different things from music. We all have bands and songwriters who we gravitate toward more than others, and we all bring our own unique biases and experiences into every single record we hear. And finding the right album at the right time, whether it’s an undisputed 10.0 classic or a scene favorite that somehow gets handed a 3.0 from one of the biggest taste-making publications in the world, that trumps everything else. If you came to this website looking for someone to tell you what to feel, if you’re reading these words because you’re searching for the “best” album of the year, you’re looking in the wrong place. In this art, “best” doesn’t exist. What truly matters is the bond that forms between music and listener when they meet at the exact right moment. Those bonds are the vehicles that allow us really feel music and fall in love with it for the first time, the devices that let certain albums to stay with us forever, and that’s something that can’t be shared or given or bought. You absolutely have to find it yourself, on your own terms.
The first album that I ever formed that kind of bond with was Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, and every record Jimmy Eat World have released since has had some huge influence on my life. The best albums, they serve as time capsule snapshots of the times in our life when they mattered most, and this band has done that for me more than most. Suffice to say that, while I’ve loved a lot of albums since that fall of 2004, when songs like “Kill” or “23” broke through my facade and convinced me that Jim Adkins knew exactly what I was going through, Futures remains the most important milestone in my musical development. I love Born to Run more, and Butch Walker is my go-to favorite artist, but without Jimmy Eat World and the 11 tracks that make up their greatest album, I wouldn’t be writing these words. For some, music is trivial entertainment, but for me, it determined a larger part of my life path than I will probably ever be able to realize. And all of that took off when, on some chilly autumn afternoon in 2004, I got a chance to “believe in futures” in a whole new way.
Fast forward eight and a half years, and that band is still at it, but a lot of other things have changed. As listeners, we all grew up. We went from shutting our eyes and humming along to the crashing climax of “23” in our adolescent bedrooms, ruminating about our juvenile crushes, to shouting along with its lyrics in our post-college apartments as we actually turned 23. But for most of us, this band’s music has remained important, even after many of the records we were listening to back then have faded into the background. In that case, it’s somewhat comforting to know that, on Damage, their seventh full-length, Jimmy Eat World are still pretty much the same band we’ve always known and loved.
The first thing most fans are going to notice with this record is the production, and that’s a shame. Due to the towering pop-rock structures and palatable studio sheen of the band’s last few records, the rawer, more live sound of Damage will probably feel a bit jarring. To be fair, many of the more epic moments of the band’s catalog, songs like “Goodbye Sky Harbor,” “Dizzy,” or “23”—in essence, the closers—were as much studio audio art as they were straight emotional pop rock, and it’s hard not to imagine what the songs on Damage could be with the same meticulous attention to detail. In particular, lead single “I Will Steal You Back” sounds a bit muddy, like a leftover demo from Futures or Stay on My Side Tonight that probably would work better if Jim’s vocals were higher in the mix. Similarly, “Book of Love” is a jaunty mid-tempo rocker that would have fit perfectly alongside the shimmering hooks of Chase This Light…if only it weren’t missing that record’s muscular sonic punch.
But more often than not, the production (courtesy of Queens of the Stone Age veteran Alain Johannes) suits the tenor of these songs in a way that Mark Trombino, Butch Vig, or Gil Norton’s more bombastic styles probably wouldn’t have. Taking a cue from Foo Fighters’ back-to-basics analog record, Wasting Light, Jimmy Eat World go for a dirtier, more spontaneous sound here that, at its finest moments, is impossible to argue with. Case-in-point is “How’d You Have Me,” which explodes with defiance and ringing guitars reminiscent of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” before morphing into the kind of vitriolic, shout-along garage rock song we haven’t heard from this band since “Blister.” Similarly, “Byebyelove” calls back to the Clarity days, with scuzzy production, minimalist structure, and goosebump-inducing crescendos that serve as fitting homage to the band’s ‘90s emo roots. And closer “You Were Good,” though it lacks the floor-to-ceiling sprawl of the band’s previous finales, sends the album out with acoustic guitars and reverb-drenched resignation.
Where Invented was largely an opportunity for Adkins to experiment with his songwriting style (much of the record played around with character perspectives and female point-of-view), Damage is the most straightforward and cohesive set of songs the band has written to date. Dubbed by Adkins as an “adult break-up album,” Damage clings to a love story arc throughout, matching its jagged production with the ragged snapshots of a relationship about to burst apart. There are snatches of that in the first two singles: “I Will Steal You Back” is a yearning plea for better times lost in the fire, while the narrator of the gorgeous title track watches as his lover vanishes into a mess of broken promises and inflated expectations. “I hate the way I feel, but I don’t think I can change,” Adkins sings in the first verse of the latter. It’s a song about falling out of love with someone you still care deeply for, and just as Adkins conveyed the pulsing want of unrequited love on “Kill” (“I can’t help it baby, this is who I am/Sorry but I can’t just go turn off how I feel”), here, he relates the destructive agony of losing connection with the person who once meant the world to you.
Even more powerful is “Please Say No,” an achingly beautiful vignette that stands alongside the very best in the Jimmy Eat World catalog. Adkins has long been one of my favorite songwriters, but his lyricism has often lingered in abstraction. One of the reasons that so many kids have been able to connect to JEW’s songs is that they’ve rarely embraced absolute specificity. On Clarity, Adkins’ poetry was sparse and indefinite. Listeners took those songs, saw what they wanted in them, and filled in the fringes with their own experiences. On Damage though, because the band has really embraced the idea of a thematic arc for the first time, Adkins is finally allowed to write in a more direct storytelling style. These songs aren’t just lovelorn poetry or odes of heartbreak; they’re full stories, five-minute films, expansive novels written in staves, rests, and music notes for the rest of us to bleed to. And “Please Say No,” which burns like a lost Springsteen cut, is the finest example of that. It’s a song about an affair and the toll it takes, not just on the relationships it squanders or on the people it cheats, but also on the lovers locked inside its deadly embrace. “I’ve lately come to wonder what it might feel like/If one last time, we went and did this right/Somewhere no one possibly could know our names/Somewhere no one bothers to remember a face,” Adkins muses during the second verse. But moments later, he begs his lover to refuse him, knowing that a simple “No” is the only thing that can save him from blowing apart his life on this impossible romance. And the way Jim sings those lines, with lush harmonies swelling around him, his voice bursting with passion and pain, it cuts right to the bone.
Jimmy Eat World aren’t going to get a ton of critical accolades for this record, and for as long as they’ve been together, they never have. But Damage is unequivocally my favorite album of the year so far, and I have a feeling that a lot of people who hear these songs at the right moment in their lives are going to share that sentiment. Maybe the connection will come on some late and sweltering summer night, and a teenage kid will be climbing into his car with heartbreak on his mind and nothing left to say. And this record will be playing on the stereo. And he’ll turn up the volume and shout along, and the words and music will crash into him and change his life forever. Or maybe that connection will sneak up on someone the way it came to me, at the end of one major life chapter and on the cusp of something infinitely bigger and more frightening. When people look back at 2013 and think about the albums that proved to be the “best” or “most influential,” I don’t know what’s going to stand up tallest. But I do know that I’ll never forget driving away from college for good while the don’t-take-too-much-for-granted strains of “Appreciation” rang through my car. I won’t forget how terrified I felt in that moment, staring off into the great unknown, or how invigorating it was to be entirely free for perhaps the first time in my life. And this album, this beautifully melancholic disc about sprained hearts, strained voices, and broken mixtape songs, will forever stand immortal because it had the grace and timing to walk into my life when I needed it most. I only hope the rest of you should be so lucky.