Third Eye Blind’s self-titled is simultaneously one of the most joyful albums I’ve ever heard and one of the most heartbreaking. The first half of the record is stacked with infectiously catchy pop-rock songs—most of which became hit singles. The latter half is more jagged and mid-tempo, with songs that sound noticeably darker and more subdued. Half the songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a summertime party playlist. The other half are songs that ache with such profound loneliness that listening to them with a group of people almost seems sacrilegious. And, as is the trademark of frontman Stephen Jenkins, even some of the songs that sound happy are actually crushing.
Third Eye Blind is a much more complex record than I thought it was when I first heard it, and I’d reckon that something similar holds true for most people. Frankly, early on, it was easy to hear Third Eye Blind’s music as little more than catchy radio rock. In the summer of 1997, “Semi-Charmed Life” rode the infectiousness of its “doo doo doo” hook to the number one slot on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart. At six years old, I thought it was the catchiest song I’d ever heard. At 26 years old, I still think it’s the catchiest song I’ve ever heard. There might not be a single song that makes me think more of summertime than that one.
As a kid, I loved Third Eye Blind because they sounded like summer. I didn’t have my own CD player at the time, but I would borrow my brother’s portable player just so I could jam this album. The singles—“Semi-Charmed Life,” “Graduate,” “How’s It Going to Be,” “Losing a Whole Year,” and “Jumper” (as well as the tempo-hopping non-single “Narcolepsy”)—were gigantic, melodic songs that my six-year-old brain latched onto eagerly. An interesting thing, though, was that I never went past track six. By the time “Thanks a Lot” came on, I’d gotten what I wanted out of my Third Eye Blind spins. I’m sure I heard the back half of the record a few times, when my brother was playing it on his boom box or when it was spinning in the car CD player, but I never got there of my own accord.
Seven years after the album’s release, I finally delved into the treasures hiding near the back of Third Eye Blind. On the recommendation of a Counting Crows forum user, I actively listened to “Motorcycle Drive By” for probably the first time ever. It floored me. I couldn’t believe I’d spent so long pretending this band was nothing more than their hits when they had a deep cut this good sitting in the penultimate slot of their debut album. That discovery encouraged me to revisit the record (and Third Eye Blind’s discography as a whole), and I quickly fell in love with the tracks that surrounded “Motorcycle”: the dreamy “I Want You”; the raucously catchy “London”; the agonizing “The Background”; and the late-night beauty that was “God of Wine.”
Listening to Third Eye Blind today is a surreal experience for me. Throughout the first half, I still hear my childhood—even if I’ve long since discovered the extra weight hiding in those songs. Where “Losing a Whole Year” was once a shout-along pump-up jam, I now hear the wistful sadness in Jenkins’ voice when he shouts “I remember you and me used to spend/The whole goddamn day in bed” at the very beginning of the song. Where “Semi-Charmed Life” used to be a carefree summer anthem, I now hear it as Jenkins intended it: a song about the allure and danger of crystal meth. And now, when I hear Jenkins scream that last “How’s it going to be/When you don’t know me anymore?” toward the end of track six, it makes me ache thinking about all the friends that aren’t friends anymore.
The second half of the record is a different experience for me. If tracks one through six are my childhood, then tracks 10 through 14 are my adolescence. Starting in the summer of 2004 and ending in the summer of 2009, it felt like this record was always there at the right time, to soundtrack a fitting moment. Unlike other records from the 1990s, which largely seemed content to stay in my past, this one kept cropping up and pushing its way back into my consciousness. Sometimes, it made the approach as an old friend. Other times, it felt like a grenade, tossed at my feet when I least expected it and offering no time for me to shield myself from the blast. That’s how it was in late July 2009, when we had to put my first dog to sleep after 14 happy years. One of the first songs that came up on my iPod the next day was “The Background,” and it positively wrecked me. That was my first experience with death, and I still can’t listen to Jenkins sing “The plans I make still have you in them” without choking up.
“Motorcycle Drive By” hurts in a different way. That song to me has always conveyed the most profound loneliness in the world. In 2004, when I first heard the song, I wasn’t sure if the loneliness it was describing was devastating or liberating. I didn’t get my answer until years later, as I drove away from a girl who I thought I loved on the day I realized that we were never going to be anything more than friends. On the way home, it started pouring and “Motorcycle Drive By” came up on my iPod. Every word of the song was fitting, but the final verse especially shook me to my core. “I go home to the coast, it starts to rain, I paddle out on the water alone/Taste the salt, taste the pain, I’m not thinking of you again/Summer dies, the swells rise, the sun goes down in my eyes/See this rolling wave, darkly coming to take me home/And I’ve never been so alone, and I’ve never been so alive.”
On that drive, I felt as lonely as I’d ever been, but I also felt this bizarre electricity coursing through my body—the electricity you feel when you suffer a crushing defeat but quickly realize that you’re going to be able to carry on regardless. 11+ years after the song had been written, I realized the truth about the loneliness at the heart of “Motorcycle Drive By.” It wasn’t wholly devastating and it wasn’t wholly liberating. Instead, it was a little bit of both, mixed into a cocktail of rain, memories, and regrets. When I’m driving alone in the summertime and it starts to pour, I still make a point of putting on “Motorcycle Drive By” and playing it loud enough to shake my soul. I do it because I love the song, but also because it reminds me of that epiphanic moment in my life where I finally grew up. I can count on one hand the songs that mean more to me.
These anecdotes help explain, I think, why this record became a cult classic. If you had asked critics in the late 90s to name bands that would still have passionate followings 20 years after the fact, they probably wouldn’t have said Third Eye Blind. But the songs Stephen Jenkins (and Kevin Cadogan) wrote on this record have continued to resonate with people, because beneath the pop confections of the melodies and production are brutally honest lyrics that convey universal human experiences in deeply felt ways. Everyone’s lost a friend, or seen how the years can turn someone from an intimate romantic partner into a stranger. Everyone’s felt the quiet numbness that hangs in the air after you lose a loved one. Everyone’s had a moment like mine, where their loneliness simultaneously felt like a grievous wound and a valuable piece of knowledge. 20 year later, Third Eye Blind remains a prescient album about the pains of growing up, set against a backdrop of melodies so euphoric that they make your heart beat a little faster. It’s a record that means more to most of us today than it did back then, simply because we can understand it better now.