Album Review: Jimmy Eat World, “Damage”

Jimmy Eat World, “Damage”
Released by RCA Records on June 11, 2013
Produced by Alain Johannes and Jimmy Eat World

Rating: 9/10

The members of Jimmy Eat World must be really great at maintaining friendships – unnaturally great, even. The band has consisted of the same four members since their first major label release, 1996’s Static Prevails, and as far as the public knows, there hasn’t been a fraction of strain or ill will amongst the band in the past seventeen years (except that little disagreement with longtime producer Mark Trombino, but seeing as he produced their previous album, Invented, it looks like even that wound has healed). Jimmy Eat World have never taken a hiatus or suffered line-up changes, and they’ve been kicking out albums at steady three-year intervals for the past decade. With their latest offering, Damage, we might as well give them the title of the most stable and consistent band that alternative rock has seen in an entire generation.

“Appreciation” reintroduces us to each part of the band steadily, and with confidence: Jim Adkins’ guitar makes the first strike, followed by Zach Lind’s drums as the opening track blooms into a full-band affair. The first words we hear are a good indicator of Damage’s themes: “Thank you, honey, for reminding me how long you can stare at someone and never see, really see.” Jimmy Eat World have described their seventh proper album as an adult break-up record, and this is an apt classification; lyrically, Damage is the band’s bleakest album since Futures. While I wouldn’t call it a concept album, Adkins does weave a thematic arc through the album, detailing the disintegration of a relationship (the final two tracks are titled “Byebyelove” and “You Were Good”). While 2010’s Invented was a mixed bag lyrically (Adkins claimed to have written each song loosely based on a photograph), this set of songs seems more intimate. Whether or not Adkins used inspiration from his personal life to write Damage, he achieved a level of authenticity here that Invented did not possess.

“Book of Love,” while not an immediate highlight, comes alive during repeated listens. It jangles and bounces, and shows that the band is on top of their craft during even the most straightforward pop songs. The entire track showcases the great bass work of Rick Burch, which is particularly pleasant during the second verse when Adkins’ layered vocals entreat, “Can you tell me what just happened? Where’s my girlfriend with her engine pinned redline? I pick you up on a Wednesday night and we go off on a secret ride like we were kids.” Lead single “I Will Steal You Back” captures a moodiness that has been rare in the band’s music since Futures, and its explosive chorus is one of Damage’s finest.

It’s difficult not to discuss every track on Damage; at ten songs and a total runtime of 38 minutes, it is the band’s shortest full-length release, and it is more dense and concise than any of their previous albums. “Please Say No” will rank among the saddest ballads of their catalogue, and Adkins hasn’t sounded as fired up as he does in “How’d You Have Me” in a very long time; the latter is a major highlight in this set of despairing songs, and its lyrics smirk: “There’s only one thing left I wish I knew: How did you have me when I only had you?” Adkins reflects on his own mistakes while still sounding confident and assured in “No, Never” (which boasts another of the album’s strongest choruses) and “Byebyelove” takes a slow-burning, minimalist approach that calls back to 1999’s Clarity.

The most startling song on Damage for many longtime fans will be the finale, “You Were Good.” Jimmy Eat World have become known for their sprawling, larger-than-life closing tracks, but Damage comes to an end with the most distant and straight-laced song on the album. A filter coats Adkins’ vocals and guitar, which are couched by a warm drone that quivers throughout the duration of the song. It is appropriate, however, that this set of songs comes to an abrupt and decidedly restrained conclusion; if Damage aims to realistically chart a gradual break-up, then there is no sweeping ending, no proper finale. “So I’m not who you wanted but you’re still the one who sets a fire in me. I guess I’ll drink what I’ll drink until the loving touch I need is not a need,” sings Adkins toward the back half of the song. “It was sad, but, baby, here we are. It was good, it was good, and it was gone.”

There are no duds or missteps on Damage, but at the same time, there are no utter surprises. Jimmy Eat World may have reached more impressive heights on their previous releases, but those albums all had one song or another that could be considered a low point (on their three previous records, for example, the sheer oddities of placement that were “Nothing Wrong,” “Gotta Be Somebody’s Blues,” and “Action Needs an Audience”). I’m too attached to Futures, Clarity, and Chase This Light to feel comfortable calling Damage the band’s best release, but it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of sequencing, consistency, and musicianship. Jimmy Eat World are the kings of alternative rock, whether or not the radio recognizes that title; I doubt they’re any more concerned with the radio today than they were when they penned “Your New Aesthetic” over a decade ago, and their confidence has never faltered since.

-Matt R. Metzler