There's nothing romantic or whimsical about the first time I heard the first single off the album that quickly became my favorite record of all time — and which is, 10 years later, still my favorite record of all time. I heard "Lucky Denver Mint" on the radio while sitting in my bedroom in suburban Akron, Ohio, sorting my Magic: The Gathering cards for an upcoming tournament and eating a block of Kraft cheese as if it were a candy bar. I had just secured a spot on the JV bowling team earlier that day. A few days earlier, I triumphantly had managed to land a date to homecoming with a girl whom I remember being regarded as popular and attractive. My social life revolved mostly around skateboarding, talking to girls on AOL, and frittering away what little social capital I had with a gaming habit that was only marginally less dorky than Dungeons & Dragons. I was 15 years old and life was good.
After illegally downloading the album off the Internet in less than 10 minutes (ah, the good ol' days), I intently listened to each of the 13 tracks, fearing I would be let down by yet another alt-rock album that had little to offer besides an unrepentantly catchy single sandwiched between layers of useless chaff. Ten years later, its safe to say that I've given up. Clarity is perfect.
When you're a teenager in a dying Rust Belt town, a place that looks to nearby Cleveland for cultural cues, it's hard to cultivate a musical palate beyond the classic "sucks/doesn't suck" dichotomy. I got there, and I thank Mesa's Jimmy Eat World for that.
If you agree with the popular opinion that emo is specifically for whiny teenagers with nothing better to do than complain about people who don't love them, I urge you to refer to Clarity immediately. Sure, it's emotional music, but not obnoxiously so. Although I've internalized every single lyric on this entire album, I'm still working to decipher their meanings. But with guitarist/vocalist Jim Adkins delivering the lyrics in a way that manages to be plaintive yet urgent without sounding strained or syrupy, and with Eno-esque producer Mark Trombino creating one soaring, anthemic chorus after another, it's hard to sit still and ponder what the slow-burning opener, "A Table for Glasses," could possibly be about. The shuffle of a brushed snare and the drone of a church organ gradually give way to one of Clarity's many sweeping climaxes. The gentle ripple of a glockenspiel and a string section were flourishes that few of Jimmy Eat World's contemporaries, like The Promise Ring or The Get Up Kids, were ever able to pull off. And that's just the first track.
The transition to "Lucky Denver Mint" is the essence of what makes Clarity such an incredible listen. I've always marveled at the flawless track sequencing. Instead of front-loading the album with ballads in an attempt to cash in on them, the band follows one of its more orchestral numbers with what may be one of the most definitive power-pop anthems of its generation. Trombino took Jimmy in an experimental direction with the use of drum and guitar loops, subtle touches that eventually give way tothe crashing power chords and machine gun-like drum breaks in "Lucky Denver Mint."
What's truly admirable about the album — which eventually got the band dropped from its major-label contract with Capitol — is that it moves in so many different directions without getting lost on its journey. There's a tirade against shameless conformity ("Your New Aesthetic"), a herky-jerky, post-punk Police homage ("Believe in What You Want"), and a shimmering power ballad ("For Me This Is Heaven") that eventually was name-checked by detestable new-school emo poster boys Something Corporate in a song that actually is about getting to second base in an automobile that may or may not be manufactured by Chrysler.
If you imagine your favorite early Weezer and Green Day tracks adorned with some of the finer tricks Trombino learned at the U2 Academy of Sparkly Guitar Sounds, you'd be somewhere near Clarity. Then again, it's difficult to imagine a situation in which a kid with an unironic love for hair metal (Rivers Cuomo) or an eyeliner-wearing punk (Billie Joe Armstrong) would end such a profound album with a three-blunt jam ("Goodbye Sky Harbor") that spills over with layered harmonies, chiming guitar passages, and 808 spurt. Unlike the 12 other tracks on Clarity, it's an almost impossible undertaking upon first listen. Once you've made it to the 13-minute mark, however, you'll never hit the skip button again.
At the age of 25, I often find myself defending my steadfast dedication to Clarity and the band that gave it to me a decade ago. Emo has become a tragic caricature, and when a band that's led by a pint-size, mascara-wearing bass player who's married to a lip-synching Us Weekly regular is leading the scene, it's hard not to give up hope completely. Let's face it: Being the only person at the Sense Fail show who's old enough to drink is not cool. But you won't catch me trading my Jimmy Eat World records for hipster noise rock like Hella or Lightning Bolt, though I can't say that Brand New and Taking Back Sunday have been as lucky.
Some of my dearest friends have abandoned Jimmy Eat World despite Clarity's being the soundtrack to those friends' glory days. I can't help feeling like the kid who gets the silver bell from Santa Claus in The Polar Express, the bell only true believers can hear.
It's hard not to find laughable a power ballad that asks, "Can you still feel the butterflies?" But that's the thing about Jimmy Eat World that is displayed so proudly on Clarity: Their sincerity and their earnestness is boundless. If that's emo, sign me up.
After all these years, it still gets me every time. If I had the chance to see this album replayed live in its entirety — which the band will do Saturday at the Marquee — the answer to the above question would most certainly be yes. The answer will always be yes.