“There’s no such thing as consistency,” Jim Adkins declares. “The best you can be is just in a state of progress all the time.”
The Jimmy Eat World frontman, calling from Manhattan, is speaking about “You Are Free,” a career-defining song on his band’s new album, Integrity Blues, but he could just as easily be talking about himself and his bandmates. Over the past 23 years, Jimmy Eat World have morphed from second-wave emo torchbearers to modern-rock stalwarts, thanks not only to smash hits like “The Middle” and “Sweetness,” but also their status as one of the genre’s premier catalog artists. Sure, the singles get the biggest pop during live shows, but audiences respond just as strongly to deep-cut favorites such as “23” and “For Me This Is Heaven.”
This has as much to do with the band’s constant musical evolution as it does their unflinching authenticity. Jimmy Eat World have never quite returned to the heights they reached on Bleed American, but you get the sense that doesn’t really bother them these days. Professed fan Taylor Swift can give “The Middle” a serendipitous sales bump in an Apple commercial, but the band aren’t out actively chasing the brass ring. (“Success is really being proud of your work,” Adkins says. “If you don’t have that, nothing else really matters.”) They’ve never relied on gimmicks or followed the latest trends. If they’re going to sustain the success that’s afforded them a two-decade career, they’d prefer to let the music do the talking.
Integrity Blues has a lot to say. It’s Jimmy Eat World’s ninth album, the first recorded in collaboration with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who helped Paramore tap into their new wave influences on their 2013 self-titled album. There are plenty of moments here that recall the Jimmy Eat World fans love: The bouncy “You With Me” offers a groove similar to Chase This Light’s “Carry You,” while the driving, dirty rock of “Get Right” fits squarely in the band’s wheelhouse, as does the goosebump-inducing acoustic ballad “The End Is Beautiful.” The first single “Sure And Certain” is quintessentially JEW, a quiet-loud dynamic blend with an anthemic chorus and textured guitar work.
There are parts of every Jimmy Eat World era here, but also steps toward sonic expansion. The aforementioned “You Are Free” eschews the band’s typical guitar-led arrangement in favor of one that allows the rhythm section to shine, while the loping, moody “Pass The Baby” is awash in digital effects and a thumping drum machine. Weirder still is the title track, a nearly a cappella movement backed by faint horn swells. Integrity Blues is, all at once, classic Jimmy Eat World and the next evolution. It’s the perfect encapsulation of where they’ve been, where they are and where they’re going. It’s their best work since 2004’s Futures.
“We’ve been a band for kind of a long time now,” Adkins says with a laugh. “I think we’ve developed this shorthand amongst ourselves. When we run into a musical puzzle, we execute based on our strengths and just do it. That may or may not mean you’re doing your best work; you’re just doing what’s familiar. Going into making Integrity Blues, we wanted to short-circuit that process and ask ourselves, ‘Is this really the best, or is it just what we’re doing because we know how to do it?’ When you start asking yourself that question and start digging in, you realize there are a whole lot more things you can try.”
Asking those questions isn’t just evident musically, but lyrically, as well. One of the constants of his songwriting career, Adkins’ lyrics are the kind of words that latch onto your soul, that lift you up in moments of euphoria and haunt you long after the feeling has passed. They’re simultaneously devastating and inspiring. They’re the kind of words people etch into their skin.
Here, songs like “You Are Free” act almost as a mood ring, an emotional choose-your-own-adventure parsing. Read one way, the song’s chorus lyric is awash in eternal optimism; read another, it’s the resigned sigh of a narrator knowing his former partner is better off without him. It’s a deceptively simple tactic, but few songwriters in the genre have been able to capture it as adroitly as Adkins.
“You could look at a song like ‘You Are Free’—or most of the songs on the record—in two perspectives,” he explains. “The door is closed, or there are a cosmic number of doors that have opened. What is the more sustaining way to view your situation? Really? Shit’s fucked? That’s an option for you? Come on. That’s not a real option. It’s amazing how you’ll psych yourself out that way.”
Adkins talks about moving past the uncertainty of the future and the crushing regret of the past, and it calls to mind the chorus of “23”: “You’ll sit alone forever if you wait for the right time.” He moves to the album-closing “Pol Roger,” a sprawling six-minute epic cut in the cloth of songs like “23” or “Goodbye Sky Harbor” that unfolds vignettes of the singer standing on a deserted Australian beach and checking into the Hotel du Vin in Glasgow, where every room bears the name of a champagne or wine (“My room tonight has its own name/The key says Pol Roger”). The payoff comes when he sings, “Are you alone like me?/Alone but not lonely,” perfectly content in the solitude.
“That acceptance of being alone but not lonely is really the holy grail of everything,” he says. “Over the course of doing this as long as I have, I’ve found myself alone in weird places all over the world. You can look at that as being alone in pain, or, ‘I’m all by myself in Hyde Park. How rare is this? I’m on a beach in western Australia and there’s no one around for miles. I can’t see a person!’”
Perspective is everything. Adkins and his bandmates have certainly gained their fair share of it over the years, and it colors every decision they make these days. It’s afforded them nine albums, longevity and, most importantly, a future on their terms. When asked to name the most off-brand, uncomfortable idea the band have been pitched over the years, Adkins has to dig deep for an answer.
“Usually stuff like that gets weeded out before it gets to us,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll call you.’ A lot of wacky video treatments have certainly come our way.”
More calls for underwear parties, á la the clip for “The Middle”?
“No, no. But the underwear thing really worked—we should do that again.”
Like the characters and situations found on Integrity Blues, Jimmy Eat World’s future is one painted not by fear of the unknown, but by its potential. It’s the solution, not the problem.
“It’s about looking at things as opportunities rather than [challenges],” Adkins relays. He’s again talking about the album, but the sentiment is similarly applicable to the band. “It’s about shifting your perspective to gratitude rather than what you don’t have. If you can just be a person and be okay with that, regardless of external validation or ‘success,’ however you want to define that, nothing can touch you.” ALT